My story begins with my parents’ story. My father, who is from Sicily, has spent his entire life working, quite successfully. Ever the money-oriented man, he ensured he always had enough for himself and later on, enough for me. My mother grew up in the Philippines, in a less-affluent family—is the case in most parts of the country—though she received an education.
As is the reality of the situation, many Southeast Asian women end up marrying European men who have the financial astuteness to entice them to move to another country for the promise of an easier life. The man in this stereotypical situation also benefits by gaining (or believing they will gain) certain desired attributes in women: submissiveness, an “exotic” appearance. Their union, like many other similar unions, was never based on love but on a temporary fit of mutual self-interest.
I’ve always felt more like the product of a business arrangement than the child of a caring family. My conception came about quite late in life for the both of them—I am 22, my father, 83, and my mother is in her early 70s. When I was 7, my parents divorced, after years of bickering and domestic violence. If the divorce had been a clear-cut parting of ways, I think I would have been all right, despite having to shuffle between two different homes. Even from a young age, I was a fairly switched-on kid and could have understood two people who could genuinely not live healthily under the same roof were better off apart. But it wasn’t clear-cut. Instead a messy, lengthy custody battle began and lasted several years before the final court order.
Attempting to Adjust
In the beginning, I did what I had to do. I was unhappy, but I managed. I split my life between two camps and maintained both. But the hostility and bitterness between my parents continued and increased, even after the divorce. Over time my father became more resentful and frustrated with the entire ordeal, though he never physically took his frustrations out on me.
My mother also did not cope well with the sudden change of lifestyle and lack of control or security over her life once her financial stability was gone. Both of them are from a significantly older generation, and I believe this hindered their ability to be aware of my feelings or the ways I would internalize their words and actions, both to each other and to me. It was as if they failed to realize I was a smaller human, with my own individual thoughts and emotions, instead of something to manipulate and control in the parental power play of the day.
My mother became more aggressive and unpredictable. Her moods shifted, and at times when her temperament reached peak levels, sometimes due to my own disobedience in attempting to live my reality rather than the one she imposed on me, she would become physically abusive and emotionally manipulative, leaving me genuinely scared of what she might do next. I remember trying to convince myself she wouldn’t do something completely terrible to me, but something about the look she would get in her eyes kept me from ever fully believing myself. I was scared.
Afraid, but powerless, I withstood this for a time before hitting my breaking point. I tried to relay the truth of my situation and what was happening to me in my mother’s house, but despite my attempts, no one really listened. The lawyers, judges, and social workers I sought help from all sided with my mother, assuming she was the victim, according to the stereotypes about domestic violence. I began to realize I wasn’t going to receive the help I needed or the protection I was promised by the legal system, so I took matters into my own hands.
I started to run away frequently (whenever it was time for me to go to my mother’s), forcing police to be called out, and tried to create other situations where what was happening would become glaringly obvious to those with the power to legally authorize what I had been requesting for years—to live only with my father, as I at least felt safe in his house. Once I reached the age of 13, my legal capacity was recognized, and my father was granted full custody. From that point, I continued with the rest of my high school years as normally as I could.
Lingering Effects in Adulthood
Of course I couldn’t—and still can’t—participate in conversations with others when they discuss their family lives, particularly their relationships with their mothers. Even before all these problems began, I didn’t really have a normal relationship with my mother. Today, we still don’t speak much, and she has she never acknowledged or apologized for her actions. A few years ago, I did end the period of total radio silence I had initiated. She’s getting older, and a bit of child’s guilt sticks with me. After all, she could die at any minute, with the thought of her only daughter wanting nothing to do with her. But we still have never been able to bond.
I usually glide over these parts of my story in social situations because they aren’t pleasant, and most people, despite their good intentions, don’t really know how to handle or deal with my truth. I’m not inclined to lie, either, so I usually don’t say anything at all. Why re-open a burning wound when it could be left closed? As an only child, I didn’t really have anyone to share my hurts with during the most difficult of times. Neither parent was very vocal or communicative when it came to expressing feelings, either, so as the years went on I learnt to be okay with having myself and myself alone. The upside to this is I became self-reliant—to the point of doing a better job at assembling my own furniture than the IKEA man himself could—but at the price of not knowing how to trust anyone or open up to people in general.
Early in my university years, I had a major depressive episode, which was spurred on by heavy drug use and a breakdown in a relationship. All the fears and insecurities I hadn’t really dealt with from my childhood years were all brought to the surface again, and it got to the point where I didn’t leave the house for months. On my worst days, I didn’t even get out of bed.
I would wake up each morning and consider, first thing, “Should today be the day where I stop the pain once and for all?” The rest of the day was spent both ensuring my mind was chemically altered enough to not feel how depressed I truly was and mentally weighing up the pros and cons of ending my life. On the one hand, I could stop feeling this numb and empty, but on the other hand, my death would probably kill my father as well. His advanced age made the chances of a heart attack statistically quite high, I thought. As much as I wished I had the courage to just do it, the thought of my father, and only him, kept me from teetering beyond the point of no return. I then felt compelled to get help. At the time it seemed like my only other option, so I got a referral to a psychologist.
Healing and Setbacks
I had seen many counselors before this time, some forced, others willingly sought, but I was not able to build a sense of trust with anyone until I went to see “Doc,” as I used to call her (a terrible cliché, I know). It was the first time in my life I ever felt truly listened to and understood by someone I respected and trusted enough to let in. After eight months of regular sessions with Doc, I managed to drastically alter my thought patterns, behaviors, and general direction in life. The period of three years that followed was the most positive and productive I’ve ever had, and I thought, “I’ve healed. It’s over.”
There’s much respite found in knowing. regardless of how I feel today or tomorrow, there will come a time soon when things get better, a time when my chest loosens up, and I can breathe freely again.
Lately, however I’ve been noticing re-emerging patterns that aren’t too dissimilar from the last time things started to really go pear-shaped. I’ve moved states, altered my career direction, and am trying to start my own business while still transitioning out of higher education into a professional life— whilst attempting to find my feet. And again, I’m feeling powerless and as if things are spiraling out of control, just as I felt the last two significant times.
On top of that, terrible things, external to my direct control, are again happening around me in my daily life. This time, these things are not related to parental forces or drugs, but to my work—I’m a lawyer. Primarily I work with asylum seekers and around asylum-seeker issues. I hear the stories of people seeking asylum, and the forces affecting them, and I try to assist. In no way am I comparing my struggles to the plight of refugees, but there are some observable similarities, to a lesser degree. I have been exploited, used, and abandoned both by people I was supposed to trust in and by the legal system. I have constantly felt different, isolated, and misunderstood by others. Having been trapped in a powerless situation, I have felt unsafe, feared everything and had to deal with cultural sensitivities not everyone can inherently understand or comprehend at times. I sometimes think that’s the reason I was drawn to this particular area of law over others. Sometimes I’m not sure if I’m unintentionally blurring the lines between their victimization and suffering with my own. The vicarious trauma counselors I see, as a matter of protocol, assure me I’m not, even though I feel I’m indulging in the fact I may be a little too sensitive and emotionally reactive at times.
But in the wash of this third wave of heavy self-doubt, isolated confusion, and deep anxiety, I’m coming to realize that even after all this time, progress, and sheer effort, I’m still healing from my own trauma. The emotional effects of my environment are triggering old wounds, just in a different way. Sometimes it can be hard to deal with the impostor syndrome that comes with working to help people when you aren’t really living out the things you say, when you struggle to even help yourself.
But I suppose there’s some comfort in the fact that, despite how shaky my foundations may still be, I have overcome these old issues before. This third time might be a little easier, and the next time might be even a little easier again. There’s much respite found in knowing. regardless of how I feel today or tomorrow, there will come a time soon when things get better, a time when my chest loosens up, and I can breathe freely again.
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