I have wanted to write about this for a while. For the past year I’ve been putting the little broken pieces of myself back together after suffering through so much in 2020 and 2021. I lost a lot during this time, with my confidence and sense of self being two of the biggest casualties. Focusing on healing was non-negotiable and vital for my survival. Friends and family have commented how hard it has been to see me a shell of my former self, with my ‘sparkle’ gone and how the moments when they see a glimpse of the ‘old me’ coming back fill them with hope for me.
I’ve been on a journey of re-finding my identity. Which is weird to say, because for years I lived abroad on my own and was wholly, unapologetically myself. But once I moved back to this small town I’d grown up in and left when I was 18 years old, I felt a strange layering of the past me and the ‘current’ me. It’s bizarre to come back to such a familiar place yet be a totally different human being. Having spent years travelling and living away in the northeast of England, then Australia and New Zealand, I can’t fully describe the weird déjà vu of being in a place that I know so well yet feel that I no longer fit in to. Many people in this town have never left it, which isn’t a judgement just a fact that makes it challenging to find common ground.
To add to this confusion, in the years I’ve lived back here I’ve had the trauma of supporting my father through a debilitating, degenerative illness. Watching him slip away from me day after day took a toll on me that I still find difficult to acknowledge. For a lot of that time, I had only a very few people in my life who could truly understand what I was going through. So mostly I hid it. I became very good at hiding it. Everyone knew my Dad was ill, but they wouldn’t necessarily hear me say how much it was affecting my life.
Then I made a fatal error – I totally lost myself in a relationship. I was borderline obsessed with being some ‘perfect’ version of myself to impress him, to the point where I essentially lived my entire life for him and not for myself. His happiness was always more important to me than my own. Only in hindsight can I see how toxic my behaviour was. It was like breathing to me to constantly put his needs before all of mine… Even while my father was dying in the middle of a global pandemic. The damage I did to myself by not prioritising my own health and wellbeing is obvious to me now, but at the time I felt trapped and stuck in this cycle of feeling never good enough and like a constant disappointment to my partner, for being too sad about my ill parent and for no longer being the ‘fun’ girl he had fallen in love with.
I was the ‘strong girl’. The one who just gets on with it and takes it all in her stride; the stoic. Outwardly, that would be pretty accurate. But of course, inside I was struggling and feeling depressed, heartbroken and missing my dear Dad who I am so similar to and who was so much the maker of me as a person. It’s probably my own fault that I didn’t share these feelings with all but a couple of people. All I can say is, when you’re going through such turmoil it’s extremely hard to speak about it with anyone that hasn’t had a similar experience.
Trying to be strong ultimately broke me. Being perceived as some kind of iron-clad superwoman that can take any number of knocks meant I got dealt many of them. By keeping up those walls to hide my inner pain all I really did was present a fake version of me that would bounce back from anything, when the exact opposite was true. I was fragile; I am fragile. And I was vulnerable and my ability to process and manage any difficult situations was basically non-existent. So people did hurt me and take advantage of me, and my reaction to this in public would be to laugh it off, but of course I was really hurt by feeling so misunderstood by people I cared for. Yet I had to admit, maybe these people didn’t know me because during this period in my life, did I even know myself?
If someone was to describe me they would probably say: she’s a good-time girl. She’s good fun, and she’s funny. And yes, I can be. I certainly used to be that carefree, happy person. I’m trying very hard now to rediscover who that was. When I lived in Australia, nine years ago, I was incredibly happy and had the most fun of my life during that year. I met so many wonderful people and the stories I have of hilarious nights out and debauchery will be lifelong memories. But that was nine years ago. I no longer want to go out drinking night after night and make questionable decisions about boys. I’d rather sit quietly and have a really good conversation with my best friends. I’d rather get up early and go for a run or walk my dog. I’d rather go to bed at 9.30pm with a good book.
A couple of years ago, I thought I’d found stability – after so many years of being a nomad, I had found someone who I felt at home with and an actual bricks and mortar home too. Everything seemed to have finally fallen into place. Unfortunately, it all turned out to be a façade and what I thought was the big love was just another phase of my life I had to say goodbye to and move on.
I’ve said goodbye a lot in my life. To my first love who broke my heart. To the man I loved in Australia and the man I loved in New Zealand. And to both the cities and lives I had in Melbourne and Wellington. I’ve said goodbye to relationships, homes where I have been happy, and even my Dad. Now I think to myself, do I have the strength to say goodbye to my hometown once again? The place that formed me, where I met my best friends, where I believed I would soon get married and raise my children? Honestly, I’m not sure if I have the energy to start over again. But I am the ‘girl who travels’, so maybe it’ll fit everyone’s definition of me if I do.
Travel is still my favourite thing to do, and I have come to understand why. For me, when I’m in a totally foreign place away from the familiar faces and places that I know so well, I feel like the truest, most authentic version of myself. There are no expectations on my shoulders to be or do anything other than what I feel like in that moment. I can walk down the street knowing I won’t see a single person I recognise. It’s the most freeing and empowering feeling to be amongst strangers in strange lands. It feeds my creativity and curiosity like nothing else can. It’s where I am the most ‘me’ I could ever be.
Learning who I am now after losing my role of caring for my Dad and my relationship last year has been a journey in itself. I’m not who I used to be and never will be again, although many of those qualities are still a huge part of me. Adventurous, but a bit more cautious; fun, but probably with a darker edge to my humour nowadays. Unlikely to fall head over heels in love in the near future, yet still open-hearted.
I think I can say, and this is not meant to be a brag, that I am a good person and there is not one soul in this little town that I have done wrong to. Which is quite a powerful thing. Of course, I am not perfect. I am well aware of my flaws and have been for years. I can be bossy; I talk too much (and too loudly). I’m a control freak in the kitchen. Above all I find talking about my darker feelings very challenging, but I do have hope that with the right partner I wouldn’t feel the need to hide them.
We are all very complex and nuanced beings and we are evolving all the time. In the last 12 months I think I’ve evolved at a million miles an hour and am now the most self-aware I could possibly be. I’m seeing more and more glimpses of that fun, carefree person I used to be, but I think it’s okay if I’m cautious in my choices now and protect myself a lot more than I have done in the past. Despite life’s challenges in recent years, I still have kindness, intelligence and humour at my core and nothing can take that from me. I have always been independent and self-sufficient. And I will be sure to listen to my gut instinct, because my intuition always knows what’s up.
I feel I’ve been gifted a unique opportunity to focus entirely on me, after years of neglect while exhausting myself caring for others. It’s been a chance to reconnect to the things that make me truly happy and remember what really matters to me. This means travelling, writing, seeing friends and mostly living a quiet life. I’ve invested in myself in a way I hadn’t for actual years. And I’ve loved it; it’s totally nourished my soul and empowered me. It’s taken a lot of hard work, but I finally can say that I think the world is lucky to have me.