We are not our Past

Even when our parents still see us as kids

Photo by Leo Rivas on Unsplash

At the end of December 2018, I cross the Atlantic again for the first time in years and shed a few decades in the process.

The flight from Seattle is so wondrous that by the time I land in Paris unkempt and underslept, my father greets his long-lost teenage daughter.

Never mind the laughter lines on my face or the odd silver thread in my hair, the longer I stay in Europe, the younger I get. Now on my second trip and my eighth month with my parents, I’ve reverted back to toddlerhood and my standard home uniform is a pair of adult-sized overalls for good measure.

My father hasn’t put my morning coffee in a bottle yet or told me to wear a bib at dinner but it’s only a matter of time.

Being back where I was born and bumping into people who remember me and whom I’ve forgotten is confusing. After years of domestic abuse at the hands of my mother — who had custody after my parents divorced — my mind is full of blank spaces rather than memories.

It makes for awkward conversations.

Some things remain, like how terrified I was of the elevator. If I happen to ride it alone up to the 16th floor where my father lives, I arrive winded and on the cusp of a panic attack every single time.

Looking out of the window is more comfortable than it used to be though. Sending snapshots of the unusual industrial landscape and huge expanse of unobscured sky to a friend helps me see beauty where I only ever used to see ugliness. This goes to show it’s possible to reframe some perceptions and override negative associations.

There’s little to no privacy in this small condo and my father complains about everything and everyone almost all the time. This isn’t a euphemism. I happen to walk past the bathroom door one day while he’s showering and I hear him kvetching loudly. “It’s extraordinary,” I tell my stepmom, “he never stops nagging, even under the shower.”

She shrugs; she’s used to it but I’m not. I had forgotten he was so difficult to live with because I hadn’t seen my family for over six years, apparently. It’s been so long no one really knows exactly how long it’s been. No doubt my brain’s prodigious janitorial capacities had taken care of this particular detail.

But there’s no malice whatsoever in my father’s oblivious behavior.

Like the rest of us, he’s terrified of Stage IV cancer killing his wife and this is how he vocalizes his fear. We’re all taking life one day at a time now, waiting for my beloved stepmom to start a fourth chemotherapy protocol after the second and the third one failed.

In September, it will be one year since my parents entered medical hell and there hasn’t been any respite yet.

As for me, I may be older but I’m still a sponge, soaking up all the ambient negativity and distress. As I do, my protective shield weakens and my defenses disappear, reactivating past trauma.

While I can’t control or indeed influence how my parents see me and we’ve all moved on, old power dynamics are still at play.

And it often feels like the past is closing in on me.

After losing five years of my life to the kind of depression that almost killed me, I’m no stranger to living in limbo.

The disease stole my writing voice, destroyed my livelihood, and cut me off from some key aspects of my cultural and linguistic identity. From 2013 to 2018, I stopped living at full capacity. Instead, I was barely a shadow of my former self, with almost everything that made me me shut away, inaccessible.

This is what I’m dealing with right now while living out of a suitcase between the US and the EU. I need to be present for my family as we continue to navigate the complex obstacle course that is my stepmom’s cancer treatment. And I’m still getting back on my feet and relearning how to do human.

Until friends in Amsterdam welcomed me into their home and offered me a safe space to escape to and regroup whenever needed, it often felt like being here could undo what hard-earned progress I’ve achieved.

But thanks to them, I’m coming back to life and celebrating this rebirth every single day.

I’m also constantly seeking new ways to adapt to this topsy-turvy reality while rebuilding a life from scratch, word by word. I can’t afford to endanger my writing voice again and yet it threatens to leave me with alarming regularity. Because I’m always exhausted, frequently overwhelmed, and still trying to inject a modicum of stability in the midst of unpredictability.

A glutton for punishment and a dutiful daughter, I sometimes go to visit my mother, too, which reactivates trauma every single time and rips me to shreds.

And every single time, I set the experience aside, to deal with at a later date, along with many other painful events. It’s all piling up in the corner of my mind and one of these days the tower of terror will probably collapse and crush me.

Unless I’ve either grown stronger by then or learned to run fast.

Because the biggest danger is inertia, I continue to fight it, pen in hand, and I keep moving forward, transcending the past.

Change remains inevitable.

For me, it’s necessary and urgent. At this stage, it isn’t yet clear what shape this might take so I’m trying to break it down into small, manageable tasks. In no particular order, this means establishing an EU base in the Netherlands in the fall, more work, health care at last, and human warmth above all else.

In practice, I’m reconnecting with old friends and nurturing fledgling alliances because life is a team sport and no one can go it alone. For five years, depression shrunk my life until I retreated into my own head and cut myself off from everyone and everything.

The head of a depressive is the loneliest place on Earth.

Worse, we don’t broadcast what’s happening to us as it’s happening either as we often lose the ability to communicate coherently. To be able to write about the reality of depression requires critical distance that takes a long time and a lot of hard and focused work to develop. But once acquired, there’s always the concern that it could vanish in a heartbeat if your depression is chronic, as mine is.

The only way to hold the past at arm’s length is to keep learning and growing rather than fall back into familiar and outdated patterns, a risk for anyone who has ever had to move back in with family.

For now, words keep saving me. Every word I commit to paper is resistance made manifest. Resistance against my traumatic past, against depression, against hardship.

And every word I commit to paper affords me that little bit more freedom.

The past may cast heavy shadows over the present but it’s also gone forever.

As long as you remember this and hang on to who you’ve become, you can’t and won’t revert back to who you were. Our parents may refuse to see it but we’ve changed and this means we can be whoever we want to be; we get to choose for ourselves.

Best of all, this is a fresh opportunity to get know one another all over again, set old enmities and disagreements aside, and strengthen the bond that unites us.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

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