I grew up in a very loving family. I knew my parents loved me and they told me so. I had a big brother who, despite the odd dead-leg and headlock, always had my back and was on my side. We were well looked after and enjoyed the simple pleasures of family walks at weekends and cosy Christmases in front of log fires. And yet, as I grew from a confident and carefree toddler and then young child, things started to change. I became more insular, spending more time playing on my own (or with snails, or my imaginary horses whom I fed rhubarb leaves, or writing odd little stories and poems). Gradually, and imperceptibly, my introverted nature was beginning to emerge. This was a completely natural process, but as I grew older and life changed around me, I began to develop a sense that I was perhaps a bit of a misfit amongst my more outgoing and outspoken friends. Having just come out of the other side of Christmas, feeling a bit down and a bit uncomfortable in my own skin, I was reminded of one of my early encounters with feelings of misfittery as a girl.
My brother and I are the only members of our family born in England. Everyone else, including my parents, were born in another country. When I was a child my parents, especially my dad, would get very nostalgic about the country of his birth. We would listen to tales and music from his childhood and be regaled with stories of the hardships and the humour of growing up there. And I could certainly see the charm, and I totally understood his enthusiasm and need for these reminiscences when he was far away from his wider family and history. The only problem was, over the years, and after the tales were no longer new, and I realised I didn’t like the music so much actually, this annual immersion started to make me feel somewhat out of place – because that was not my history, not my home.
This was compounded by the trips we made to visit relatives. Amongst my cousins I would sometimes feel like an alien. They would make fun of my “posh” accent, and I often felt sad they didn’t seem to think we had much in common. I tried too hard to be liked by them and it had the opposite effect. The final indignity came when my brother (the one person who I felt I should have been able to rely on as an ally – given he was from the same country of birth as me), started to also immerse himself in these stories of the old country. He would encourage my dad in his ponderings, and worse still, eventually in his teasing of me because I just didn’t get it. I started to dread Christmas – trapped in a room with people who were enjoying things I just couldn’t connect with, and feelings of guilt because I didn’t. They would laugh at my discomfort and dismiss it as silliness and immaturity. This seemed particularly unfair as, surely it was my parent’s choice where I was born, and so why was I being persecuted because it wasn’t the same as for them? Though I did on occasion try and explain how I felt, my voice was too young, or my articulation of the issue too poorly formed to help them understand how out of place and isolated they inadvertently made me feel.
Lots of people find Christmas difficult. I know I am not alone in this. And this one annual deference to my father’s nostalgia would probably not have been an issue at all had I felt more secure in myself in other ways. But sadly this was not the case. We moved about a lot when I was young. As my father worked hard to provide us with the best life he possibly could, we moved home as he moved job. Unfortunately this also meant my brother and I would be ripped from the friends we had made and then have to start again from scratch. As very young children I think this was probably manageable. But as we grew up, so did the strength of our attachments and the impact of their ending. One particular move – at the age of eleven (my brother fourteen) was the toughest of all. We were moving from a place we had called home for longer than anywhere else, and leaving those friends and that sense of security broke my heart. I still remember the phone number and postcode of that house. I still have vivid and unsettling dreams about it regularly. I remember my best friend’s phone number, her birthday and, for a very long time, mourned the growing up we were not going to get to do together.
The first day at every new school was always terrifying and stressful for me. I so badly wanted to be liked and to fit in. I would build myself up into such a frenzied state of tension that I would throw up on the way home from these trials without fail. My brother would despair of me for trying to change my accent to make it sound more like the new people at school. But I was willing to try anything so that I wasn’t so obviously the outsider they all knew me to be.
And, I did make friends, and eventually, I did fit in. But a price had been paid. Unlike many of my classmates who had grown up together, who had a chance to find out who they were in a relatively stable environment, I had been formed somewhat unnaturally – having to adapt to wherever I found myself and whoever I found myself amongst – losing confidence in myself in the process, and forming a strange hybrid person who really wasn’t sure who she was supposed to be at all.
And, this pattern continued on into adulthood. As I left for university (a time when many young adults can finally throw themselves into their newly discovered selves with full force), I was still very much a square creature on the inside, trying to fit into the circular spaces offered to me. This led me to attach myself to people I had little in common with, but without the self-awareness to recognise this or the fortitude to change it.
And now, in my early forties, I am finally starting to understand this hotchpotch of a person that was formed through those early years. It is all thanks to suffering from depression that this transpired. I had experienced depression when I was younger (though I didn’t know that was what it was at the time). But it wasn’t until I completely lost the plot in my mid-thirties that my fragile foundations disintegrated in front of my eyes and those of the people that love me. My husband said he didn’t recognise me. I was exhibiting all sorts of out of character behaviour. The ‘Me’ I had created out of necessity had imploded. And now, having gone through counselling, and a lot of soul-searching, and some grieving, I am starting to rebuild myself, hopefully to form a more fully functional, integrated, authentic person who would pass a structural inspection. (I have tried to capture this process in fairy-tale form in ‘The Path To Wise Counsel – A Tale’).
Last year, whilst going through counselling, my best friend sent me a supportive message, with the most beautiful words about me that anyone had ever said. Her words brought me to tears. I was incredibly moved, and very hopeful that the good she saw in me was a true reflection of some part of me that I could retain.
It is way beyond time that I finally get to know and present the real me to the world. And, over the last couple of years, having experienced anxiety attacks for the first time in my life, I am left wondering if perhaps this is in response to an increasing feeling of urgency to find myself and become the true person I was born to be.
Last week I read about a man in Indonesia who has just celebrated his 146th Birthday. Honestly! 146! The oldest man to have ever lived (that we know of) – born in 1870. Of course, he is a rarity in the extreme – but he gave me great hope that there is still enough time to figure it all out. And I am confident it isn’t going to take nearly that long :).
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