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Title: Learning to Be Myself
Author: Gem Hill
Author’s identity includes: female, queer, tattooed, baker, cook
Potentially distressing themes: References to familial abuse / neglect, financial hardship, alcohol
I don’t talk to my family any more. I cut them off in 2018, after a lot of therapy and hard work. I spent my life looking after them and realised I’d never be fully happy, never fully be able to live my life if they were still in it.
I am good with kids and babies. People tell me that I look natural holding or rocking a baby. I tell them it’s because I’m the eldest of four, so I’m used to it, and that’s true. I leave out the bit where I had to rock my siblings or change nappies or make them food because if I didn’t, I didn’t know if anyone else would. This makes it sound dramatic; my mother wasn’t neglectful, neither was my stepdad. However, he was abusive, and she was abused, and that changes the decision making process a lot.
When my mum was crying in her bedroom and he shouted that I best come cook if I wanted to eat, I knew that if I didn’t go and cook then we wouldn’t eat for a while and it would make him more angry and maybe cause another argument. It was easier to go and cook and clean up and make bottles of formula for my youngest siblings.
This continued into adulthood – my family are poor, so when I got a job, even when I moved away, I’d contribute money to the household. This culminated when my mother finally left her abusive partner and I had to pay rent and bills on her new house for a few months. She’d already gotten the house when she asked me to contribute to it because she assumed I’d be able to and wouldn’t say no. I was able to and didn’t say no, because what else could I do? When I said I couldn’t any more because I had my own bills to pay, she started crying. I paid one more month, feeling bitter and guilty and so angry that she did this to me and I couldn’t say no.
So I fall into caring for others a lot. It’s where I feel safe and in control. Even if people don’t ask for it, I’ll take on that burden, sometimes without realising it until I’m there, doing stuff.
There’s a lot to unpack here, and I won’t unpack it all, but there’s a couple of things I want to pull out.
I want to mainly talk about caring for myself and how that feels.
I recently (amicably) ended an eleven year relationship. This is my first time living alone, ever, having met my ex at uni and either being in house shares or living with them since. I’ve never had a space that is solely mine until now.
I have no one else to care for, for the first time ever. I can focus fully on myself. It feels great and sometimes I feel so guilty, I can barely breathe. To clarify: my ex never expected me to care for them, and they are a functioning adult, but as I’ve mentioned, it’s a pattern I fall into naturally. It happened, regardless.
I feel guilty for leaving my family in the lurch, for leaving my partner, for being selfish. For expecting people to deal with my needs, boundaries, and feelings. I had a rough, messy year after cutting off my family, chasing away my feelings of guilt and being just adrift with too much wine and avoidance. Without the labels of ‘daughter’ and ‘sister’, I had no centre of identity anymore, and I spiralled a bit. I leaned on people hard to the point where honestly, I don’t know why people hung out with me back then (or continue to now, but that’s a different therapy session). I’m just incredibly grateful.
I still don’t really know how to answer the questions about family. Most people don’t ask, but a few have as small talk – talk about siblings or parents. I tend to deflect, change the subject, ask about theirs – because the words, ‘I don’t speak to them,’ are too dramatic and, ‘they’re not in the picture,’ sounds mysterious. I don’t want to get into it over brunch with a colleague. I want to focus on the other stuff in my life – the good stuff.
I also want to talk about forgiveness. I’ve been really lucky in that I’ve had no one pull the, ‘but they’re family,’ card on me. No one has asked about forgiveness or reaching out or anything like that. My family hasn’t even pushed this boundary, for once. This makes me feel guilty, because clearly they’re not reaching out to me because I’ve hurt them and now they’re having to deal with my feelings.
My mom failed me in many ways. I wasn’t protected from the abuse I suffered at the hands of the men she had children with. I was the one to go and be a messenger when she and my stepdad were fighting. I was the one she woke up at 7am on Christmas day to share her woes. I know for a fact she would’ve been better off without having kids. No child should ever know that. But I also know I’m never getting an apology, not really. I’m never getting an acknowledgment of her failings. I don’t want that. I want to be free, and to get that freedom, I need to get my own closure and move on. This is part of that. This writing out of things, some of which the majority of people who know me aren’t aware of. For me to come to terms with things, I have to accept that, at least for now, they are a part of me and I have to work with them.
I have to accept that I’ll always want to feed people and get intense validation out of people enjoying the food I make. That I’ll always try to manage people’s emotions. That other people arguing will make me intensely anxious. That I find it hard to not take over plans to be in control. That I hate inconveniencing other people. Once I’ve done that, I can try to work on accepting things I can’t change, finding better coping mechanisms, and working on positive change.
I’m still not sure who I am, or what I want out of a life that’s mine. I am surrounded by the best people in the world though – people who will catch me, who love me without strings attached – and I am so lucky. I’ll figure everything else out.