Wow. Phew. I had to let that one breathe a little. The outpouring of love I received after my first post was overwhelming, in a good way and I want to thank each and every one of you who read it from the bottom of my heart. To all of you who were always there (you know who you are), thank you. To all of you who made me laugh through my darkest days, thank you. To all of you who didn’t make me talk about it, but totally would have if I wanted to, thank you. To all of you who let me act like I was fine while watching me closely waiting to rush to my aid, thank you. It is because of you all that I am a (relatively) high functioning adult who truly believes that love exists in this world, all we have to do is be open to it. Thank you for loving me when I was so closed off that the door hinge was stuck and the key was nowhere to be found. Thank you for continuing to love me today. I love you, too. Always.
What I’ve realized over the course of the last six years, and especially in the six days, is that sharing might be scary, but it really is caring. Sharing this story is caring about myself. It’s caring about healing. It’s caring about my mother, father, sisters, aunts, ancestors. It’s caring about those I love enough to allow them closer than I ever have before. It’s caring about all of the people out there who find my story all too familiar. I see you. All of you strong ones. And I love you. Always.
I have never told that story before (case in point: I sent a link to my therapist because, idk, it felt like something she should know) and I know that the mystery surrounding, well, me, is just that: mysterious. I promise it’s not all my scorpio sun. I am evasive. I don’t talk about myself. When my mom died my sophomore year of college I told maybe m a y b e five of my closest friends. I didn’t want to burden anybody with my trauma. The weight was mine to do with what I could. For a long time I just packed it away and moved it from house to house with me, storing it in the back of closets and deep in basements. Reality sucked, but more than reality I feared sympathy and I had no idea where to look for empathy. Sympathy wouldn’t let me pretend none of it happened. Sympathy asked me to be brave before I was ready to call it bravery. Continuing to live my life without exposing my wounds to the world was a survival mechanism. It was never just coping. Maintaining a sense of normalcy was paramount to my survival and I didn’t want to die, too. Normalcy meant boy problems were the most pressing issues of the day. Normalcy meant drinking too much and never thinking it was enough. Normalcy meant listening to my friends complain about their parents while “totally getting it” and holding my tongue, simultaneously. Normalcy meant pretending. In pretending I reinvented myself. Nobody had to know I wasn’t normal.
But, here’s the thing, what the fuck is normal? As a society we have been spoon fed an conception of normalcy by media that is only achievable to a small percentage of the population (generally rich, white people). I was a hippie child from a small, rural town in Northern California, my baseline normal was worlds away from the normal of my peers from prep schools in New England. As I began to realize that normal was relative (thanks in part to a sociology degree), I also began to understand that pain is relative. On a scale of 1-10, my 5 could very easily be your 10. My pain has stayed the same size, I have learned to grow around it. Every moment of pain is an opportunity for growth. Regardless of where we fall on the scale of relative pain, we each must respect where the other is at. This is where we cultivate empathy. This is where we acknowledge that bravery is also relative. For some people getting out of bed in the morning is an act of immense bravery and we should applaud them, too.
I remember once being stuck in traffic on the 101 freeway headed north somewhere around Studio City when it struck me that every person in every car around me might have a story that could rival my own. We would never know each other, we might never even be on the same freeway at the same time again, but I began to wonder, how many people around me were the bearers of trauma of who’s weight I knew nothing, or knew to well. I looked into the windows of the cars around me. Was the older Latino man in the Volvo trying to get to the hospital to see his dying mother? Was the disheveled and exhausted looking mom two cars over mourning the loss of her husband? Was young brunette riding in her old chevy in my rearview recovering from losing her grandmother? Had any of these people nodded along solemnly to those Modest Mouse lyrics “if life’s not beautiful without the pain, well I’d just rather never, ever see beauty again”? Were they in their cars right now, holding back tears while listening to Ben Gibbard sing the all too familiar story of What Sarah Said? I would never know.
And that’s the thing: we never know. It’s kind of amazing really, what we don’t know about people around us. The things we can discover if we commit to the slow and gentle unearthing of the story behind their normal. You want a real mind fuck? commit to the slow and gentle unearthing of the story behind your normal. The more empathy you cultivate for yourself, the more empathy you are able to cultivate for others. And when I say “your normal” I mean every part. What are your stories? Who are the characters? What roles do they play? Who are you? How has your identity been shaped by your personal experiences? How as it been carefully molded by socio-cultural expectations? Where do those last two questions overlap? The pool of questions we could dive in in order to know ourselves better is really an ocean. Each wave of realization leads to another. We are vast. We are deep. And when we stop pitting ourselves against our history we find that we are able to catch the current that will lead us to the lessons we benefit most from learning.
I fought the current of my mother’s illness, coma and death in every way imaginable. I swam up stream. I attempted to drown the ocean. I worked to watch it go up in smoke. I tried to climb out of the water all together. It was hard and heartbreaking, but it worked. Remember, the goal was surviving. I survived. But when it came to living the harder I fought the pull of this current the more my lungs filled with water and I found myself gasping for air. The more I found myself dying. I had a taste of freedom from this battle while studying abroad in India in 2011, but I’ll save that for another post. It was really in December of 2014 when I was deciding to drop out of grad school that I was ready to admit I was tired of fighting. In the spring of 2015, seven years after my mom fell into a coma and six years after her death, I began really confronting my grief. I told maybe m a y b e five of my friends what I was going through, again not wanting to burden anybody with the weight of my trauma seven years after the fact. I felt like I had lost the right to grieve openly when I had refrained from actively mourning my mom when she was actually dying. Plus, who want’s to talk about dead moms? That kind of stuff doesn’t make you friends, or at least that’s what I used to think.
This year I have committed myself to standing in my truth.
Standing in my truth means knowing that I never have and never will lose the right to talk about the pain of losing my mom. I’ve begun telling people within the first few hours of meeting them that my mom is dead. How they react tells me immediately if they’re worthy of my time. If you can’t hold my pain, I can’t hold yours.
Standing in my truth means owning every part of what has happened to me, with my mom and beyond. Trust me, there’s a whole lot of dad stuff I haven’t even touched on.
Standing in my truth means being authentic in my relations with myself and those around me. I’m tired of pretending that some fictional “normal” exists where there is no pain. There is always pain. It is how we react that determines our capacity for growth.
I am also committing to demystifying myself for those I love but continue to keep at arms length… and I guess whoever else wants to ride this current with me. So I guess I’m committing to keeping this up. This writing thing. This sharing thing. This release thing. This finding the blessing in the curse thing. This truth thing. I’m not here to be brave or to showcase my pain for sympathy (please god, no). I’m just here to explain my normal. It’s fucking weird, I promise.