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Last summer I lost my chosen family.

I was really upset. I spent a few days dealing with logistics and trying to finish the things I was supposed to finish. After that I had cleared my schedule to do GISHWHES. But I didn’t really do GISHWHES. Instead I sat around in my living room and stared at stuff. Oh, and I broke up with someone. Then I got a not-very-nice email while shopping for luggage at Marshall’s, and I felt like I might have a panic attack so I went home without buying anything. And then I went to the UK.

When I got back from the UK, I was numb. All my emotions felt muted. Even when I was spending time with people I cared about, I felt like there was this new and unfathomable distance between us. I went to parties and stuff because there were parties and stuff on my calendar. I made plans to hang out with people because I needed new friends and I needed the friends I still had, and friendship doesn’t just spontaneously happen. But I felt like I was going through the motions and waiting for time to pass.

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I was numb for months.

MONTHS.

It felt like years.

I wondered if this was just the way I was going to be from now on.

I wondered how I could seem the same on the outside when I felt completely alien on the inside.

I wondered if I’d ever be able to trust my own judgment.

And then the numbness began to slowly fade. That took awhile too.

And now it’s mostly gone, except when it isn’t, and without the numbness to protect me I’m crying in bathrooms, and I understand why I had to be numb for that time. Because this has been really hard.

At some point a few years ago I thought, well, I couldn’t choose my given family, and that was unfortunate, but now I could have a chosen family of friends so everything was going to be fine.

But everything was NOT fine. Things fell apart. Physical boundaries were violated, emotional boundaries were violated, my words were dropping into a void, and I realized my life hadn’t changed as much as I had hoped. I still didn’t matter the way I wanted to matter.

In my darkest moments this fall I felt I had failed completely and utterly. And I told myself sternly that even if I had, I was not allowed to give up.

I remember writing blasé blog posts in the early years of this blog about how I had been a people pleaser but I was going to change, and how much healthier it would be to not be a people pleaser anymore. What I didn’t know back then is that being a people pleaser is a really effective defense mechanism. And without it? Well, without it, I had to face the painful truth.

Without it, I couldn’t always turn everything back on myself. Without it, I couldn’t keep making excuses for other people’s behavior. Without it, I started setting reasonable boundaries and then standing back to watch the fireworks, instead of not doing it so I could tell myself that if I just did it, everything would be fine. I got to see that sometimes people just do and say shitty things, and there is nothing I can do about it except communicate as clearly as possible, take care of myself, and try to be kind but firm. Especially firm.

I’ve felt like I’ve been hip-deep in bullshit for months. And yet at the same time, I realize that until now, I’ve been nose-deep and barely able to breathe. Changing this has perhaps been the hardest thing I’ve done.

I haven’t written directly about what happened last summer before now because I was worried about what you would think. I was worried about what everyone would think. I was worried that somehow by talking about it, I’d make it even worse. But lately, as I am able to see what’s going on around me more clearly, I don’t care as much as I thought I did. And if I have to choose between caring what you think and writing about what is true, I’ll choose writing about what is true. That’s who I am. That’s what matters to me.

And lately, I have come to realize that maybe, just maybe, I have another chosen family. They don’t look the way I thought they would. They’re scattered all over the place, and they’re not all friends with each other, and they’re very different from one another too. They are the people I trust, or am coming to trust. They are the people who listen. They are the people who respond to boundary setting with respect and patience. They are the people who remind me in a hundred small ways I am not alone.

Last summer I lost my chosen family. But coming out of the numbness now, I see that I am closer to finding myself.

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At the end of each year, it is my custom on this blog to reflect on themes of the year: things I’ve learned, things I’ve been working on, things that keep coming up until they achieve a resonance with the year that’s gone by. And this year, as with last year, I find myself wanting to talk about friendship.

My friend Rahul wrote a blog post back in July that has stayed in my mind ever since: “Your friends probably won’t be there for you when you most desperately need someone’s help.” I was very bothered by this post because it put one of my fears into words and presented it as truth. Boiled down, the idea is that in your time of need, your family is all you have.

I completely disagree with this idea. And I think understanding this idea is not the only possible truth is perhaps one of the most important things I did this year.

This is not to say that I don’t think family is important. I do, absolutely. But sometimes we might not have very much family, or they might live far away, or they might be dysfunctional in a harmful way. Some of us end up without a lot or even any family. It can happen. And what then?

This is also not to say that all friends will be there for you at all times. More casual friends might not be there for you at all. Or you may surprise each other as the friendship deepens. And friends aren’t operating under an obligation that is the same as the familial obligation we are familiar with in our society.

Friendship. Photo Credit: Pensiero via Compfight cc

But it is possible to build a chosen family, a family of friends. It is not as straightforward, perhaps, as having blood ties. Different friends are willing and able to give each other different things, and this giving can’t be forced the way it sometimes can be in traditional families. Friendship has to be built over time, and because there isn’t one template, one correct way to do things, friendship has to be negotiated in a way that both people are ultimately comfortable with.

Just as with relationships with family or significant others, deeper relationships with friends are not always easy. Sometimes they need more time and care, sometimes they need some space. Sometimes your friend lets you down, and sometimes you let down your friend. Mistakes are made, feelings are hurt, things that need to be said aren’t said. Sometimes tough circumstances can be communicated through, and sometimes such efforts prove to be too difficult. Sometimes you are left with the thin hope that the passing of time will work some magic to allow renewed understanding to pass between the two of you.

This is what I AM saying. There have been times during the past two years when I have desperately needed someone’s help. And collectively, my friends have been there for me. They have shown generosity and caring in a thousand different ways. They have stood by me and let me learn what I needed to learn and most crucially, they have reminded me, over and over again, that I am not alone.

They are my family.

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