Words by: Malena Frey Art by: Lily Li
It started with arguments between my parents, and soon a divorce followed. At 14, the nightmare of living with an alcohol dependent mother culminated in finally moving in with my dad for what I thought would be a new, stable beginning.
Yet when I was greeted with long working hours and regular absences to visit an overseas girlfriend, my idea of belonging to some tight-knit family further dissipated.
Estranged relationships and scattered family members seemed a stark contrast to the movies I had spent so much time watching as a child. Cheaper By the Dozen, Love Actually, Home Alone, all favourites that projected ideas of family life that everyone appeared to have, except me. For a short time, I couldn’t help but wonder when I was going to have the family with the white picket fence, matching Christmas jumpers and nothing to show but Colgate sparkling smiles. Yet as the lack of family connection and stability I felt became a constant presence, I gave up on this idea almost as soon as I had conjured it. The void only seemed to grow, yet rather than hope for drastic changes to occur within my family, without even realising, I began to construct my own.
Upon starting high school, the physical playground became an emotional one, self esteem issues surfaced, and a myriad of other traumatic experiences that came along with puberty arose. Turbulent times called for
a consistent shoulder to cry on. Yet when friends offered more support and trust in facing these issues than any blood relative ever had, they were no longer mere friends but vitally needed sisters. With even greater unprecedented personal challenges, psychologists and school counsellors — while perhaps only a brief presence — offered support and guidance that yet again seemed absent from my family. Bosses and managers showed consistent care too and it wasn’t long before work events trumped family functions. Even major holidays, with the arguments I knew would ensue, meant that I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to spend Christmas day with more than just my best friend.
As I distanced myself more and more from family however, conflict soon appeared. Outraged at my apparent dismissal of family life, arguments with my parents caused pangs of guilt to surface. After all, they brought me into this world, cared for me, fed me, clothed me, were pleasant at times, and bought me things too. For these acts, it was tempting to sweep traumatic experiences and negative behaviour under the carpet. Block them out and simply forget — it was easy to succumb to the guilt as each time I let myself believe that I could forget the ‘not so sunny.’
Yet the belief that I deserved better prevailed, as my mental health continually didn’t. Today, I remind myself and others that you’re not betraying your family by refusing to accept their toxic behaviours. Relatives have a part of the contract to uphold in having a relationship with you, just as anyone else does. Blood relation doesn’t excuse them from this — if the contract has been broken, you have the right to free yourself from its binds.
The instances of my parents, aunts, uncles, and other adults speaking of and complaining about the measures they took to please their parents reminded me that they hold different, yet outdated beliefs. I began to think that when we make it known that certain behaviours or interactions don’t serve us, it may not be our disobedience that frustrates our family. Maybe it’s simply the uncomfortable realisation that they themselves didn’t have the courage to say no to toxic and negative behaviours but that you do.