Individuating to Find Peace in my Relationship with My Parents
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
A few friends messaged me about my post, A Letter to My Parents: From Goa, a piece of prose posted on my old blog. A piece I never intended to make public.
I poured my heart out to my parents in the piece, speaking about the need to live my “own” life, a life that may not make sense to my parents. I need to feel free. It’s the only way for me to truly find and build my personal sense of happiness.
Just before writing that letter, mentally, I was dealing with unmatched anxiety and burnout. Not to mention compensating cycles of depression which led to a diagnosis of bipolar II disorder. At the time, I felt mostly numb and frozen. Watching the world reel away. The letter was my way out of this cycle.
When enmeshed with my parents in family life, I was influenced by their presence. I subconsciously looked for their approval on my decisions. With them around I always felt a need to play the role of a high-achieving daughter, and all the societal rules that come with it. This role led to a pattern of pleasing others before myself, which impacted my mental health further.
I’d posted the article with the sheer need to put my words out somewhere other than the pages of my notebook. Naturally, I forgot about it until later when a friend reached out to me about the piece.
The letter read:
“I feel sane here Ma.
Even when on some days
it gets too much,
too much for me to process.
I feel free here.
I feel at home here with myself.
I can’t explain to you,
and what worlds I carry inside.
But there’s something,
so big that is making its way out.
I am not as scared as I was, Ma.
Not of this world.
Not of myself.
Not of the people.
I can’t shrink down, Ma.
I’ve always been too big for you to handle,
but I can’t shrink down for you to feel safe.
I’ve so much inside me.
So many dreams,
so many words,
so many feelings
and they’re all racing to come out.
I love you.
But do you know what love is?
I am sorry, I mean,
do you remember what love is?
I know my words will never reach your understanding.
I know all they can fall onto
are your empty ears.
I also feel empty, Ma.
I am not immune to these things
and there’s no way you guys can shield me
from the other side of being a human.
I am not afraid to feel, Ma.
I’m not afraid of feeling lost,
afraid, confused, anxious, lonely
and like my world has crashed down.
I am fine, Ma.
My heart is fine.
My mind is fine.
I just live in a world different from yours.
I always have
and I can’t come back to yours.
I can’t breathe there.”
The thing is, I never intended to give that letter to my parents. It was never meant for them to read. It was written solely for me, for the sake of finally saying those things out loud and liberating myself. It was an act of taking my power, life, freedom and sense of ‘being’ back. I needed to reclaim myself, spiritually, emotionally and practically too; to be on my own and trust my instincts. I had to learn what the notion of a “career” meant to me and understand that I can depend on my own idea of a good life and don’t need to look to others for an expressed affirmation. I posted that letter in a place where none of my known people could read it. I believe it was a visceral urge to put out my creation as a cathartic act.
And herein lies the secret. We don’t need our parents to understand us. I never needed my parents to read those words. I never actually needed them to believe in or trust me. Having my parents acknowledge that I’m in pain; that, what is painful to me is regular life to them, was whimsical at best and utterly disappointing and nerve-wracking at worst.
Mom, can I come back home?
I can’t sleep at night.
I’ve finally achieved
to manifest my long-term stress
in a physical breakdown.
My body has finally given up
in soaring fevers
& painful screams.
Mom, can I come back home?
I hope this is enough for you to see.
To finally see me.
Poem written in my Personal Notebook
This is a poem I wrote in August of 2019. It was the time my physical health had collapsed and I was falling sick at least once in a fortnight, accompanied by an emotional breakdown every weekend. My emotional breakdowns were chaotic. They looked like me laying on the floor with an antiseptic bottle, ruminating about what would happen if I drank it. Will it kill me or just disembowel me? I would break down and the notion that I can’t face anything that is happening would enter my personhood. The uncertainty of the future, the pressure of academics, the unduly demands of academia and the whole rat race of the world overpowered my system.
Reflecting now, my breakdowns were more like breakthroughs, each breakdown made it clear to me what I valued. Whether I cared more about the trophies of the world or my own face of success. For the twenty-one-year-old me, the notion of success was very debilitating, causing me serious illness. My run of one and half years was filled with me catching every small flu, and spending weeks in my room sickened. Urinary Tract Infections and ulcers became a part of my life. I also experienced my Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) acting out and Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD) accompanying it. To add to it all, I had severe anxiety, depression and a bipolar II diagnosis, which impacted not only my mind but my body’s health.
As is evident from the poem, I was waiting for my parents to finally notice that something was off within me. I wished for them to call me back home, to acknowledge my pain and to give me the permission to leave my college. I still remember all the times I called my parents crying from my dorm room—amidst an anxiety attack, questioning them and accusing them of never having taught me to maintain my well-being before my achievements. They programmed me to burn myself out for the sake of performing on top. And I couldn’t stop.
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That frustration stemmed from my desire to have my parents listen to my agony and tell me that I can do what I want to do about it, that I can leave it all. To say that I matter more than my accomplishments. That was me in my victimhood, waiting for my parents to free me. To make a decision that prioritizes my well-being over academic achievements. Well, that never happened. And my meltdowns continued.
Victimhood is a tricky thing, we never know we are in it until we witness someone who isn’t. It is easier to believe that I’m at the goodwill of an institution, a system, a world. That ‘it is what it is.’ That I’ve no power here. My victimhood kept me believing that it was the system. It’s how the world of Physics and academia work. That people chasing marks, papers, internships, and money, was the problem. It, in a broad sense, is, but to believe that I don’t have any power, that I’ve no say, was far from the truth.
That victimhood ended when I realised that I had strength. I had the resolve to not participate. To refuse to adhere to others’ timelines. That I can choose my own tailored path to whatever it is I want. Even if it is simply a different road to physics. Instead of chasing colleges and publications, I wanted to chase competence, brilliance, curiosity and true wonder. I won’t be the most accomplished, but I would surely be the most confident and healthy.
It was during one emotional breakdown that it finally dawned on me that my parents could never make the right decisions for me. Not because they aren’t good parents or aren’t capable of making good decisions but simply for the fact that they aren’t me. They could never tell me to let things fall apart or to let go of the control that is causing me such tremendous pain. That control which caused me to hate my existence. It wasn’t that they didn’t care. They did. But they didn’t know all that was happening inside me.
They weren’t aware of all the trauma they unconsciously passed on to me or the emotional weight I carried. It was the trauma of my dad taking his worth from his accomplishments that was passed on to me. And that of my mother depending on others to make her decisions. It felt as heavy as it could. To continue in a life where your worth is based on things as flimsy as a report card, or some digits on a paper which tell you where you’ll end up. They didn’t know the things I was fighting internally. They only see the part of the iceberg that was above the water.
Only I knew the whole of the iceberg. Only I was capable of choosing what to do with it. How to best navigate in its presence. Their guidance, hence their decisions, were based only on the part that was visible to them. I couldn’t depend on their ill-informed decisions. Or anybody’s, for that matter.
It was at that moment I decided to start giving myself the permission I ‘subconsciously’ sought from my parents. What shifted in me was I’d seen myself closely, I’d spent enough time holding myself in my grief that I had the mental breakthrough. That decision partly set me free. Free to live a truly liberated life, built on my own terms and free to look at my parents for the humans they are. To finally notice their own personal struggles, setbacks, traumas and cultivate compassion for them.
I taught myself to let go of the burden and fear and go to bed with a good mental landscape. That a grade B and my health is better than an A and a mental breakdown. I taught myself it’s okay how I’m received by others. If I’m not befriended, I’m my friend. I taught myself loneliness is okay too, it’s part of being human.
I taught myself all that I was desperately asking my parents for. I taught myself to keep my well-being before anything. Before my achievements, before my fears.
It’s been more than six months now. I couldn’t be happier for how my life unfolded and prouder at the courage I showed to take my decisions. I am back in Delhi, my home, living with my parents during the COVID-19 outbreak yet I am at complete peace.
I feel free. Internally.
I make all my decisions on my own now. Based on what I truly want. Not what is safe or easily digestible for those around me. I share physical space with my parents but I have completely individualized, psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually.They are no longer two flawless beings I subconsciously idolize and seek guidance from; putting their word above mine.They are two humans now. Who lived life with the resources they had, with the knowledge and awareness they had. Learning these lessons have also helped me manage my mental health and connect to the care I need.
My mental health changed spectacularly, after coming home I started taking cues from my nervous system, building myself a routine and started practices of yoga and breathwork which would help me in the long term. Apart from the physical work, I also started taking my time in understanding my needs. My needs for rest, activity, and breath. I started practising attunement and embodying my most healthy and powerful self. Healing all the way to a better mental, physical and emotional self.
The funny thing is as I started giving myself permission to be my true self and make my own decisions, I became peaceful. And happy.
It somehow affected my mom too. I noticed her change in trivial ways, making small personal decisions and giving herself some room to breathe. And that’s just the belief I choose to harbor now. That one day, maybe, just maybe my parents will also choose to step out of the survival zone and live lives that fill their hearts so enormously that joy and peace become byproducts of it.
Finally, my life unfolds in a way I never imagined. I’m making my own decisions on whom I want to build relationships with, how I want to work, what I want to put out there for people to read, how I want to create a life, what means I want to undertake, whether I’ll become a writer, or Coach and usher more people into world I see possible. It individuated me from my parents as I started seeing a life utterly different from what they’d lived. Where money, love, work had new definitions, new models. Based on love, acceptance and community. I carried a vision of how beautiful things can be.