When people ask me about my life—where I grew up, what my parents are like, where I live—chances are I don’t tell the full story. My reasons for omitting key details aren’t related to lack of time (I mean, why would you ask me about my life if we’ve only got 10 minutes?), or lack of patience. My fear is that saying certain details out loud makes them real, which subsequently means realizing out loud that terrible things happened in my life.
There are certain details that I am used to telling people, those I cannot completely avoid because they’re bound to come up in conversation in the long-run. I tell people that my father passed away when I was 13, that my mother is now remarried, and that I’ve grown up in both the U.S. and India. But I often fail to recognize that the time I spent grieving a lost parent, meeting the new person who would now be my “father figure,” and struggling with my cultural identity have contributed to the Upasna I am today. My sense of humor, likes and dislikes, habits, style, conversational skills can all be accredited to pivotal moments in my life (and not just the ones I just mentioned).
When I’m asked how my father died, I answer, “He had heart problems.” I purposely neglect to tell people—and inadvertently, I neglect to remind myself—that he suffered from heart problems because he was an alcoholic. The last time I told someone that my father was an alcoholic, their follow-up question, “So, do you drink?” fulfilled my worst fear: I can’t drink, otherwise I’m an alcoholic, like my father. Shortening and diluting my story helps me feel “normal.” I am not ashamed of my past as much as I am wary of other people’s reactions. Telling people the unedited version can seem like the best way to exclude myself from future get togethers. I play out the scenario in my head: the friend responds with too much pity, “I don’t know what to say,” a formal condolence, or even worse, nothing at all. Just knowing that my story is shocking enough to leave someone speechless frightens me. I know that it’s fine to be different from the more privileged people around me and that I can’t help what situations I have found myself in, but knowing that doesn’t stop me asking myself why I couldn’t have had more ordinary obstacles to conquer.
Recently, I’ve been going through a bit of an identity crisis. Since moving to college and starting this New Chapter of Life, I’ve found myself in a bit of a creative rut. It has affected my writing, how I interact with people, and how I feel about myself as a writer. I sometimes feel as though my writing skills have dissipated into thin air along with my self-awareness! I constantly ask myself what truly makes me happy, what kind of person I hope to be, what goals I want to accomplish. I have few answers. I know studying and getting an education makes me happy, I understand that I want to be someone others enjoy spending time with, someone trustworthy and capable of intimacy, and I hope to accomplish my concrete career goals, too. But something is missing; I don’t really understand myself.
I spent the summer living alone in Chicago, thinking constantly about my life. It’s been hard to admit to myself that by editing my past out of fear of others’ reactions, I am also slowly forgetting the experiences that made me who I am. I’ve neglected the memories that have taught me lessons, and the scary moments that have showed me how to be strong. I don’t think I can fully know who I am without acknowledging my past—everything, absolutely everything. The more I leave out, the more I forget, and the more I lose a sense of who I am and why I am this way. Forgetting has contributed to my misunderstanding my mental health. My anxiety and depression stem from what I have been through, but it has been hard to recognize that, because for such a long time I refused to delve back into my treacherous stack of memories. I want to ease my symptoms, and to do that I have to face what happened.
By omitting important details—editing out my father’s mental health issues, the abuse my mother faced and that I witnessed growing up—I am discrediting the strength and maturity I have developed over the years. It has been difficult to tell myself that my tumultuous childhood may have resulted in a good things in the long run, in me being an OK person. The harsh truth of what I faced has taught me to be compassionate. I have learned to be sensitive to others, not to make assumptions about people’s lives because, like me, they may not be telling the full story.
It’s comforting to pretend that although I went through some stuff it’s not that big of a deal. I repeat the words, “Yeah my father passed away when I was 13,” a sentence I have practiced so many times in my room alone, with a certain tone and facial expression. It is comforting to pretend that my situation as a child of a single mother isn’t all that unique. It is so comforting to pretend that I almost convinced myself the reality never happened at all. Sometimes, though, memories of my past come back in flashes, and I can’t really stop them. A trigger reminds me of the details I try so hard to leave out. It’s impossible to lie to myself completely.
I am trying to figure out how I can stop being so afraid of what people will say if I don’t leave out the details. At the same time, I know that I am not always doing my past an injustice by shortening the story—a particular context may call for a different telling. But first, I want to truly understand the vitality of my memories and the importance of my past. Maybe then the next time I have conversation with someone about my life, I won’t feel like I am telling a sob story that will receive a superficially empathetic reaction, but as though I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing, telling the truth about the person I am. ♦