In the Blog
the small distance between losing you and losing myself (and keeping us both for good)
Photo by David Cantu
Writer’s Note: This post contains discussion of abusive family dynamics, suicidal ideation, death, and losing a parent to a terminal illness. Please take care while reading. My dad was diagnosed with cancer on March 16 2016, and passed away on May 2nd the same year. I originally wrote this piece in April, a few weeks before his death.
I am the baby of my family.
My mother, dad, and sister emigrated from India to Canada years before I was born. They lost things in that journey that, 40 years later, they never got back.
My parents lost themselves in cycles of stress, workdays that never end, and temper tantrums amidst the constant threat of poverty.
My sister lost the warmth of the sun and the feel of her bare feet in India’s hot soil; being held in the comfort of community and a rich extended family of cousins and friends. Five years old, she arrived in a cold, snowy, lonely place that didn’t want her.
When I was born, seven years later, I became her saviour. The little sister that would make all the pain go away. Her chance to prove to her family and to the heavens above that she was a good person, a good daughter. So that finally, she could deserve good things.
As we both grew up, she gripped my shoulders with cat claws.
“What if I ever lost you?” Fear expands behind her eyes like black holes. “I would never heal from that kind of pain. I love you more than I love myself.”
I am 31 years old now, and I’ve learned a few lessons since then.
I’ve learned that if your fear of losing someone grows too big, it can totally eclipse any regard you might have for their humanity. Or your own.
The person you fear losing stops being who they are. They become some-thing you need to control in order to keep your fear at bay. They become a tool to serve your own healing. They become a coping mechanism for your trauma.
A sister cannot live, thrive, be, if all she becomes is a coping mechanism. And at some point the baby of the family needs to grow up.
The baby learns that forced intimacy is not the same thing as being close. That loving someone more than you love yourself is not a noble thing.
I’ve learned that I don’t “owe” my older sister my time, conversations, visits, or access to experiences I don’t feel safe sharing, even if she’s my sister, even after “all that she’s done for me.”
I’ve learned that people who attempt to force their own ideas of “what’s best for me” are not actually looking out for me.
I’m learning to separate other people’s worries of everything bad that could happen in the world and to me, from my own truth. I’m learning to stop living in cages of other people’s fear, and move freely as myself.
I’m learning to validate the teenager who was forced into conversations about sex and trauma with a grown woman because she wanted to feel like the wise, advice-giving big sister. I’m learning to tell myself, it’s okay to call this abuse. It’s okay that I was scared as a kid, and that I get scared to this day, whenever she tries to force me to talk about anything. I’m not a bad person for not wanting to talk.
I remember all the times I ran to her when I was in a crisis. I remember what happened when the crisis was done: how she knows exactly where and how to push my buttons so that I break-down, and keep breaking-down, so she can keep swooping down to save me.
At some point I stop questioning whether or not something is wrong with me – why don’t I ever make time to call her, to visit her? Her anger and frustration, her ever-escalating boundary crossings, must be justified.
Instead, one day it clicks: I’m never going to want to make time for phone calls or visits that make me feel shitty, and that is okay.
I learn that I don’t have to perpetually argue with someone about who I am, what I feel, what I need, and what I know about myself, and I shouldn’t ever have to. I learn to recognize that someone who believes she knows me better than I know myself, doesn’t know me at all.
I learn that I don’t need a micro-manager for my life. I don’t need my relationships, friendships, career choices, financial situation, budget, daily routines, or therapy appointments constantly analyzed, and scrutinized under a microscope by her. I don’t need to pick up the phone for that. I don’t need to satisfy her need to feel useful.
I learn that I could just believe in myself. Trust myself. Find peace within myself.
I stop believing that commitment and family loyalty (blood or chosen) is the same thing as being goaded into arguments, fighting to the death, and not letting each other out of the turmoil of our emotions no matter how bad it gets.
I start believing that I can have my own definition of family loyalty, one that also encompasses sustainability. Loyalty and commitment can be things that I can actually survive. And I don’t just want to survive. I want to live.
2016 is the year I commit to myself - I am going to live.
So I no longer stay in relationships with people who constantly explode their temper all over me, who yell at me for being myself, who use me as a punching bag for their trauma, or who attempt to control me or change my mind when I am honest about my boundaries, capacity, needs, purpose or desires.
I no longer am a person who is so afraid of losing people that I let that fear totally eclipse any regard I might have for their humanity. Or my own.
Once upon a time I was a person who stayed with abusive partners and lovers because I couldn’t see the reality of what they were doing to me. I forgot that I was a person who deserves safety in intimate relationships. I figured it was inevitable to live in constant fear, grief or anxiety with the person I am closest to.
I was a person who didn’t let people leave who just wanted to go. Who didn’t pay attention to incompatibilities or warning signs in relationships. I couldn’t see when someone wanted something different from me than I wanted from them. I ignored my own needs and I didn’t want to hear it when they told me or showed me something wasn’t working.
I fought tirelessly to keep dead things alive. I worked so hard to be the person that someone else would like, love, stay with, so much that I didn’t stop to ask myself… “But, maybe this isn’t so hot for me, either…”
And, then, there were all the times I ended up in intimate relationships with people who were struggling with wanting to die. I was living on perpetual suicide watch, living as a perpetual crisis counsellor. I poured all my resources, gifts, inspiration, energy, labour, time, and mental-emotional-spiritual-physical capacity, all my best life-saving words, into keeping them alive.
As if it was my responsibility. As if it was in my power. As if it was my decision. As if that’s what I came here on this planet to do.
Underneath “I love you. You are needed and special to the world,” was “Please don’t leave me.” Underneath that was “I’m terrified of losing you.” Underneath that still, was “I’m terrified of losing myself.”
I’m terrified of losing what you offer me. Partnership. Family. Comfort. Stability. Connection. Sex. Romance. Friendship. Community. History. Resistance. Belief. Trust. Hope. Peace. Faith. Strength. Joy. Spirit. Breath. Life.
Resistance is learning that these qualities are all-always a part of us, and we couldn’t lose them if we tried.
Revolution is being brave enough to make change on the inside, so that we can make different choices for each other and ourselves.
Peace is living in alignment with the pathways and teachings of Mother Earth, the universe, our soul’s purpose for being here, the home that holds us here, and the people who honour that home, instead of with the systems that attempt to destroy us.
Faith is believing the universe wouldn’t have brought each of us here, in our own unique, sparkly, magical way of being, if there wasn’t enough to go around to bring all of us what we need.
Spirit is the thing that will believe this truth for us, in all the moments, years, or decades we can’t figure out how to believe it for ourselves.
even – especially – amidst all the suffering there is in the world, joy is what we all deserve.
So last week when my Dad lay in his hospital bed, exhausted and worn from life, from excruciating, constant pain for two months straight, from a sudden terminal cancer they found aggressively growing in his stomach – and for the first time he expressed to his family that the pain was too much for him to want to stay alive – I couldn’t respond to this moment the same way I would have before.
I watch my mother and sister’s trigger button deep within their stomachs ignited. Their fear activated of losing their loved one. Denial rising up through their chests and voices, manifesting as loud words and as attempting to control situations and people they don’t have the power to control.
I watch them pick up obnoxious cheerleader pom-poms and wave around panicky motivational phrases: “It’s not your time! Fight through the pain! STAY A-LIVE! STAY A-LIVE!”
I watch my Dad close his eyes and wrinkle his forehead, trying to shut out the noise. I watch him sink lower into his depression and helplessness. Exhaustion fading away his guilt for letting down his family.
I sit there and know there’s no way am I going to let anyone hand me a fucking pom-pom. Instead, I realize that after making a career and a life out of begging people not to die I don’t know how to be that person anymore. I couldn’t be her if I tried.
What I can do instead is put my hand on my dad’s hand and breathe with him. My hand and my breath can let him know that I see him. I understand. There is no shame in how he feels, so matter how hard it is for anyone else to swallow. I’m with him, no matter where he is.
I sit with him. I sit with him on a beach with a warm glorious sun beating down on sparkling white sand and bright blue water. We listen to the rhythm of the waves rising and falling. Like the light and dark and light and dark of passing shadows in a moving train passing by the green and yellow fields of Bengal. Like the waves of pain moving through his body.
This is my beach. This is where I end up. All the times I almost died but didn’t.
After, the riptide catches me and spins me like a washing machine. Moments, years, decades of being caught in my own depression, disbelief in the world, and in anything outside of the reality of pain. Trapped by the energy of suicide.
Then there’s the moment I stop fighting the undercurrent. I let go. I surrender to the feeling. Surrender to the possibility, the reality, of dying. I make peace with it. I allow it to happen.
And every time, in the surrender, and only in the surrender, is when the wave releases me from its grip. I gently, almost unnoticeably float into safety. I bob like a weightless beach ball toward the shore. I crawl onto the land, wet sand sticking and sparkling on my bare legs and tummy. I roll over onto my back, my chest breathing up and down, allowing the sun’s rays and cloudless blue sky to warm my skin.
It’s quiet and the cheerleading has stopped for the time being. My Dad joins me on my beach, now our beach. I sit with him. I hold his hand in his hospital bed. This time I say it out loud. “I’m proud of you. For this, and for everything. You’re not letting anyone down. Nothing to feel bad about.” “No ma,” he breathes, “I don’t feel bad. It’s just the pain.” “Yes, it’s just the pain.”
And that is all we need to say.