“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” ~Maya Angelou
When I was eight years old, my mom had her first mental breakdown. The illusion of a typical suburban family shattered as the household descended into chaos. When the counselors and child protective services stepped in, I knew: I was undeniably different.
When you’re a child, family life is the classroom through which you learn how the world works. Once my mom was hospitalized, I realized how very different my lessons were.
Mortified, I retreated into a world of my own, one in which I wouldn’t have to try to formulate responses to questions I couldn’t possibly know the answers to.
As the years passed, family life grew more chaotic. Addiction and mental illness sunk their teeth deep into the flesh of my family, wrenching apart the bonds that held us together.
By the time I graduated high school, I felt like my family life had completely imploded and my sense of self imploded with it.
I moved out of my parents’ home as soon as I was able to and quickly set to work creating a “normal” life. I bought a car, then a house, and earned my degree. I spent more than six years in an unhealthy relationship for the sake of stability.
I can’t pinpoint the moment I realized that I was acting out a story that did not belong to me.
I had buttressed myself with stability and material comforts not because they were the things I truly wanted, but because they were the things that I could hold as evidence that I had survived my tumultuous past and developed into a responsible adult.
I didn’t know it at the time, but I was driven by shame. I was ashamed of my family and I was ashamed of myself. In a culture where addiction and mental illness are stigmatized, I couldn’t bear the fact that those two illnesses, in some ways, shaped the framework through which I viewed the world.
So I hid myself behind the story I had created of who I was. The narrative I shaped began with a girl who was victimized, then broken. Eventually, I began to identify as a survivor, but for many years, I didn’t realize that I was much more than that.
Shame is insidious. It disguises itself as a desire to be a better person, a commitment to moving on. Meanwhile, it burrows deep into your soul and makes a home there until the day that you break open and expose it to the light.
It was heart-wrenching to uncover the truth. I had labeled myself a survivor because I was unwilling to acknowledge the pain that I carried within me. I defined myself by my experiences, and so created a life where every action was driven by my past.
I had to let go of the lies I told myself in order to become my most authentic self.
All of my past experiences have certainly contributed to my perception of life, but I know now that those experiences do not have to shape my present.
I can acknowledge the pain of past experiences while still choosing to experience the present from a place of joy. That choice was made simple by taking just one step: I let go of the labels I had given myself.
I could choose to live life as any number of things: a victim of abuse, an adult child of an addict, a survivor; or I could choose to live my life free of labels: a person who has lived a wide variety of experiences and is open to all of the new experiences that life has to offer.
I found so much freedom in becoming myself.
I no longer make decisions out of fear. Rather than analyze every situation through a framework created by years of dysfunctional relationships, I trust my instincts. I take care to notice the stories I tell myself and I consciously choose whether or not to believe them.
Take a moment to listen to your own narrative. How do you define yourself? Write down a short description of who you are and where you come from. Then, take an honest look at your narrative and decide if that is the person you want to be.
We are all poised to create the lives we want, but we must first uncover and discard the beliefs that no longer serve us. Let go of your labels and greet each day open to the possibilities of who you might be. Your potential is limitless.
Photo by Jesus Solana