Growing up, I used to dream of the freedom of fading into the background of a busy city street. I’d be on my own to find out who I am when no one is silencing me. I’d find my own tribe of people who loved me for who I was, not in spite of it.
In my daydreams, I live a life like Andie Anderson, the ambitious writer Kate Hudson played in How To Lose a Guy in 10 Days, with a career on the rise, a fun love life and a group of friends to have adventures with and fill in for family. And like Andie’s, my own family would be nowhere in sight, unable to reach me. I’d be just another person in the bustling city, unreachable and untouchable, deliciously anonymous, free from the implicit rules of being the scapegoat daughter.
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My Small Town Life Keeps Me Close to My Abusive Family
Life ended up taking me in a different direction than my big city dreams. It turns out that I’m actually more of a small town, open spaces kind of person, one who fell in love with a kind man who loves her back. I like roots and staying in one spot where I know people, from the friends who lift me up in times of crisis to the pharmacist who keeps lollipops behind the counter in a special bin just for my kids.
All of this is good, but, unfortunately, it means I’m rooted just a few minutes' drive from where I grew up. Some of my old classmates still live here, old acquaintances who remember me and my parents and siblings—former neighbors who suspect the abuse and dysfunction I grew up with that my parents and siblings turn a blind eye to.
Although I don’t speak to some of my family, divorce—and my mother’s subsequent move over a thousand miles away—has made it possible to still have contact with my father, a conservative bigot who has never respected my boundaries or beliefs. I kept in touch mainly to maintain a relationship with my two younger siblings.
Unfortunately, the older I get, the more I see my parents in them and the more of my parents’ scapegoating behavior I see rubbing off on them. Growing up, my siblings and I didn’t see eye to eye on everything, but we were a team, mostly having each other’s backs. As we grew up and I pulled away from the physical and mental abuse, my siblings sympathized with my parents and tried to pull me back into the fold.
“You don’t see what you are doing to them,” they’d tell me, trying to convince me to resume a relationship with my mother or just see my father more regularly.
I have tried for years to set boundaries by limiting contact and only seeing my parents on my terms to free myself of the effects of a lifetime of emotional abuse and a childhood of physical abuse. I failed at setting up strict enough boundaries. I failed at finally feeling free.
Until 2020 happened.
COVID Gave Me the Distance I Needed
When the world locked down, a lot of people lamented the loss of contact with their families. We missed Easter gatherings, then summer barbecues, then the fall and winter holidays. Loved ones mourned missing major family milestones, from birthdays to births. While the world cried, I finally found the freedom I was looking for in my small house just a few miles from where I grew up feeling so trapped.
Sure, we had to cancel a trip to Disney World, and we couldn’t go to the beach or the pool—all minor inconveniences of privilege. But on the other hand, we also didn’t have to endure the family outside our home that makes life so stressful.
When the rest of my family gathered for the first time after the lockdown for Easter 2020, I firmly said no, citing my health conditions and my son’s premature birth that put me at greater risk for catching COVID. I made it clear we were hunkering down until all of this was done. That Sunday, my little family and I had a peaceful day full of bubbles and homemade pasta instead of tension, insults and drama. It was the best holiday of my adult life.
My family accepted my decision, at least for a little while, particularly after two of them caught COVID last summer. I spent a blissful summer without a single invitation coming from their direction. My birthday came and went with no obligatory dinner, then the same happened on Father’s Day. I didn’t feel pressured to host a barbecue or meet anyone to drink in their driveway.
The pressure to be a part of these fraught relationships faded like an old photo, while the colors of my real life grew more and more vivid. For the first time, the gaslighting stopped. There was no one telling me I was less than or stupid, or worthless because I’m a woman, especially one who dares to live life according to a different set of beliefs and morals. There was no one trying to change me into the fundamentally different person they’d prefer me to be.
In my family’s absence, I thrived. There was nothing to disrupt the peaceful bubble we built, even in the midst of the chaos of COVID and the rising political tensions. Even as the world fell apart around us, I found myself enjoying spending time barefoot catching fireflies and looking for frogs with my daughter. We did puzzles and art projects and rigged up a makeshift Slip ‘N Slide. The rest of society may have been living in fear; I felt safe for the first time in my life. I stopped having panic attacks and nightmares before family obligations because there weren’t any.
Like the garden we grew together last summer, I bloomed into the best version of myself, growing confidence I didn’t know I was capable of and finally chasing after my bigger dreams—the ones my family were always putting down. I made art. I wrote. I came up with wacky projects to do with the kids and watched as my husband would listen to my ideas carefully and figure out ways to make them work. No one put me down.
The Pandemic May Be Ending, but I’m Not Going Back to “Normal”
When summer’s golden days ended, my little bubble embraced backyard s’mores and homeschooling. We continued to build each other up. When the holidays rolled around, we spent them eating too much in our pajamas and baking way too many cookies for just four people. There was none of the annual stress of cleaning the house or cooking a massive meal for people who would only make me feel bad in the end.
2020 showed me exactly how life can be when I can’t see my abusers. It was sweet and well deserved.
Now that 2021 is here and the world vaccinates and reopens, I miss the early days of the shutdown and the sweetness of last summer’s solitude. With reopening comes the familial expectation that I will emerge from my bubble and go back to how things were in 2019, where I showed up to all of their obligatory events and dealt with all their inevitable abuse.
But I’m not going back.
While I’m glad the world is getting back to normal, I miss having my decision to opt out of life with my family of origin at least marginally respected. I miss not having confrontations over my boundaries. Now that they expect me to jump back into the dysfunctional family life, I miss the simplicity 2020 showed me. I learned how easy my life can be when I am free of my abusers. It showed me I don’t need a crowded city street to disappear into in order to find freedom. I can find it even when the world locks down.
I hold fast to the lessons I learned during my peaceful year of lockdown. I won’t forget them, and I won’t go backward. I don’t miss the family members who don’t respect me and treat me like garbage, and I don’t feel guilty about cutting them out of our lives. I don’t miss them. I’m holding firm to cutting off contact with the people that make me feel bad about being me.
I’ve finally learned how it feels to be free. It feels too damn good to ever stop.