I recently realised that I’ve been living my life to an imaginary set of rules. I had this inherent belief that if I could just stick to these rules then good things would happen, or at least, bad things wouldn’t. These rules defined so much of my everyday life – from what I would wear, to what I would eat, and more than anything else, what I would say and how I would act. It was as if I had constructed this invisible box around myself – somewhere safe to live – but without realising that space was too small for me, and that it was actually holding me back.
It’s not difficult for me to understand why I would have such a strong attachment to a set of rules. Or why I would seek to create order to control against chaos. Because that is exactly how I would describe my childhood – chaotic.
I was 7 when my father committed suicide, and it only got worse from there.
My mother couldn’t cope with the situation so she handled it the best way she knew, by mentally and at times physically retreating from us.
I remember walking into the darkened room where my mother was sitting in shock, having heard the news about my father, and I will never forget the thoughts that immediately came to me: “Mum needs me now. I have to be strong. She needs my help.”
She didn’t know what to do. Especially when it came to my older brother. He became so angry and aggressive that she wasn’t able to control him. She would turn a blind eye to the emotional, physical and psychological abuse he doled out on me and my two younger sisters – refusing to face it unless I would angrily force her to deal with extreme isolated incidents. Threats of boarding schools or foster care would be wielded but quickly ‘normality’ would resume again.
I spent my childhood navigating an invisible web of trip wires – trying to figure out what Mum needed, and what would make her happy, while looking out for my sisters and trying not to anger my brother or draw negative attention from him in any way. I created my own imaginary set of rules for survival, and have held on to them ever since.
One of the rules I had absorbed was to always stick to the party lines: “yes, my mother did such a good job raising 4 children all by herself after such a tragedy!”, or “yes, my poor brother, surrounded by all those girls, really had it tough!”
It took me years of therapy to realise those stories weren’t entirely true, and were actually dangerously misleading. But the idea of being more honest terrified me. Somewhere along the way I had understood the most important rule of all to be very simple – never reveal family secrets.
I now know how toxic these secrets are, and how much they hold us back – just like the imaginary rules I created for myself all those years ago in an effort for survival. So I am breaking the rules. I’m sharing the family secrets. And setting myself free in the process.