Thursday 11 June 2015

Who Are You?!

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Over the recent weeks since my mother's sudden passing, I've spent a fair bit of time reflecting upon my life and who I am and comparing it to the life that I knew of my mother.

When I was digging through the multitude of photo albums stashed away in the days after her passing, I discovered photos of her that I'd never seen before and doing things that I'd never be able to imagine her doing, yet there she was. It was mind-boggling.

My dad reminded me that my mother was diagnosed with Schizophrenia when I was about 4, so most of my life was spent caring for her while he was working and my brother wasn't prepared to do the job. This meant that my life and the person that I am was formed from the basis of being a caretaker, or as I've recently discovered the term, 'Adult Child'.

Dad told me that mum was whoever she needed to be or whoever other people wanted her to be depending on who she was with. She played the role of a particular person whether it be best friend, girlfriend, wife, daughter, mother, etc. It made sense. I knew her as a mother, but she wasn't herself as a mother, she was who she thought a mother should be.

Dad also told me that despite battling mental illness, mum tried hard to be normal even though it completed exhausted her to do so. At her memorial service I gave a speech where I talked about what it was like living with mum in her mental state. Most people had absolutely no clue she was mentally ill because she was so skilled at hiding it around those who only saw her for a few hours a week.

Something I realised a fair while back was that although I always thought of my mother's illness as a curse or a burden, it was actually an incredible gift because of what it taught me and the person that it made me. If it weren't for her, her illness or how I had to cope with that growing up, I wouldn't be in the incredibly unique position now of being able to empathise and relate to people going through similar things.

Given how much stigma there still is around mental illness, growing up in a home where we dealt with it on a daily basis was actually a blessing in disguise. People could find some kind of solace or refuge in our home because of how we'd learnt to treat and cope with mum's illness. We didn't necessarily talk about it, but we didn't pretend that it didn't exist either, we weren't in a position to.

I've also realised quite recently that my mother also gave me another indirect gift. The gift of knowing who I really was from an early age. Granted this is a two-part gift since dad never really discouraged me or my interests, unless he thought that pursuing them would harm me in some way.

Mum tried to be who everyone else wanted her to be and she lost herself along the way. I was always determined to never end up like her. She just seemed to be unhappy and tried to convince herself and everyone around her that she was, even though I could see straight through her. She always tried to get me to fit in with the other girls, always compared me whenever I wouldn't do what she wanted me to saying that the other girls my age, and named a few who I didn't particularly like, never talked back to their parents and were always well-behaved. I countered that she couldn't possibly know what they were like behind closed doors, but she told me she imagined that they were well-behaved children unlike me.

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As mentioned in many previous posts, I tried hard, really hard to fit in, but like mum I got exhausted from trying to keep up with other people. I wasn't interested in the things that they did or talked about, whenever I tried to join in because I was sick of being alone, moments later the group I was with decided that they'd take a communal trip to the toilet or go somewhere that I wasn't interested in, so it seemed completely pointless when I got the impression that they wanted me around as much as I wanted to be around. So I kept to myself and got through the day the only ways I knew how: finding a quiet spot away from everyone and either reading or writing to escape the world I didn't know how to find the exit for.

I've realised that I never really knew mum, of course no one can know their parents the way other people can, especially if they're a lifelong friend. But since mum started forgetting things, I really never got the chance to know her even though I had her for 25 years. The pictures I found only tell part of the story, some of her old letters and things tell another part, but given mum's mental state, I don't think there was any way she could have joined the dots for me.

Something I wrote in an earlier post and that I brought to therapy a few sessions ago was memories of being at church or youth group and because there wasn't much to do or say, people stood around fiddling with their clothes and pretending to be part of the scenery which when I look back on it is both hilarious and pathetic. You just stand there, not talking or really doing anything, just observing the scene in front of you and silently judging those around you because there's not much else to do.

I was thinking about this earlier this week and after plenty of encouragement from a family friend who'd also lost her mother to cancer a few years back and had similar experiences with mental illness in her family, she told me that I was doing incredibly well and I needed to be much kinder to myself especially with everything that had happened of late.

I thought about the people from church who had made me feel essentially like a worthless piece of shit for most of my life and I thought about all the things I'd done for myself since then. I was and am proud of the person I've become, not just because of how hard I've had to fight not only to survive, but to be that person, but because of what that really means in the grand scheme of things.

I had a dream a while back now where the popular religious girl in my class who also happened to be a distant cousin of mine (as well as everyone else with the way that religious communities work), she was hovering over me from behind and I kept asking her why I was treated the way I was. She confirmed that people had wanted me to kill myself, although not saying the actual words, but she confirmed it and told me it was because I had self. I took that as her saying people couldn't understand me and were possibly jealous of the fact that I didn't follow the crowd and they found that fearfully intimidating.

I wondered though, for all those people who get caught up in crowds and soar in popularity, do they really know who they are when they aren't surrounded by people? Do they know what they want, or do they just mindlessly follow what those around them are doing or what other people want them to do for fear of being cast out and becoming the reject and loner like I was?

For me, I always saw being the outcast and loner as a weakness. I just didn't have the strength to keep up appearances and convince everyone else that I was okay when I honestly couldn't even convince myself on most days. Now though, I'm starting to think that maybe the things that fellow creatives of mine have said about being courageous by standing away from the crowd, maybe that's truer than the negative image I've always had of myself.

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I imagined the other night bumping into one of the girls I graduated with who's since married and has a baby. From memory she was one of the first in our class to do so. In my fantasy/daydream/whatever you want to call it, she was struggling to wrangle her baby and her husband was out with the guys so she was left to her own devices. I stopped by her and offered to help her out. I asked her how she was doing generally as well as with marriage and motherhood. She admitted to me that it was hard work, much harder than she thought it would be and I got the sense that she'd been so caught up in the crowd and doing what was expected of her that the wake up call of reality was more than she bargained for and she was just riding the wave as best as she could.

She told me later on that she admired how well I'd done in life and that no matter how badly she or anyone else had treated me when we were growing up, that it had come from a place of jealousy and awe. I refused to let anyone tell me who I was, what to do or who to be, and that was all that everyone else had ever done for the girls I'd grown up with. They were expected to find a partner, settle down, get a job, attend church on Sundays and live happily ever after. I'd done none of that and I was the better for it.

I was also flipping through the signature book from my 21st that one of my best friends at the time had given me. Her message in the front of it was a great validation of who I am. She wrote that she liked that I was my own person and encouraged me to keep standing up for things that I believe in.
Another friend wrote that she liked I was always honest about things but expressed it in a way that didn't hurt the other persons feelings. Both were great things to hear.

Some other friends of mine, one being the school counsellor who I'd become close to, told me I had wonderful qualities to be treasured and the former year advisor/second mother told me how much I'd grown over the time she'd known me and really treasured my friendship.

Mum's one was the hardest to read given how raw her loss still is, but she wrote that I was still my parents bundle of joy and that I'd had grown into a lovely young lady, something which I mentally questioned. Dad, after much coercion (he usually left card messages and the like for mum to do and sign his name at the bottom) wrote that I had a gift of sorts of finding true friendships in a variety of different people and they didn't change over time. He commented that the array of people that came to celebrate my 21st year of life surprised him. Some were younger, only a few were the same age and the rest were older. There was someone from nearly every aspect of my life, but only people who were genuine which was an incredible blessing to both myself and my parents.

I was having a discussion with the same friend who encouraged me to be kind to myself, and I was telling her that I didn't understand people who went out and got drunk or high every weekend since it held absolutely no appeal to me. She told me that they had no life purpose so all they could do was find different forms of instant gratification to wile away their time. That made sense but I also thought it was incredibly sad. I've always known that I had a huge job to do, that my life purpose was important because I couldn't imagine going through what I had and having it mean nothing at the end of the day.

So let me ask you, dear reader of the obscenely long yet highly insightful and reflective post, who are you? Do you know the answer or even how to answer that? Are you the person who sits quietly in a corner minding their own business like me? Or are you the person who is constantly surrounded by people and isn't sure of what to do when they're not around? Maybe you thrive in a crowd and know exactly who you are and what you want. Maybe not.

My gut instincts have always been strong. If someone wanted to me to do something and there was peer pressure but I really didn't want to do it, I wouldn't. If I was going to be liked, it had to be for who I was and not for who people around me wanted me to be, no exceptions. I found that the times when I tried to be who others wanted me to be, it just felt wrong and after a while I stopped because I got tired of it and the people I was trying to impress were just going to see how far they could push me, they didn't really care.

If you don't know who you are or what you want, that's more than okay. Conversely, if you do, that's great too. If you don't, you have every opportunity to find out. Firstly you need to stop listening to everyone else and listen to yourself. Find hobbies, try out a variety of different things until you find something that you're drawn to and follow that. If you can't afford to do so, find a way to just observe or if it's a class or something, talk to the instructor/teacher and ask if you can volunteer or take part in some way until you can afford to take it on in a greater capacity.

Whatever you do, do it for you. That's the only surefire way to know who you are!

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