Among all the Disney VHSs that I wore out as a kid, there was one that I only remember seeing later in my childhood, loved, but never owned. My mother disliked the premise, so we never had it in the house, but seeing it on television later on was something that I felt echoed some of my struggles. One song from it, in particular: “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid echoed the dissonance between myself and the human world. For a long time, I believed I was less than human, because that is how I made sense of how I was treated. I was consistently excluded on merits I didn’t understand. I know now part of it is because I am a very different kind of person, comprised of many worlds but not accepted as a part of them due to only partial immersions.
I’m giving a few examples here but these are by far not the only ones. One of my favorite TV shows, that I’m sure I’ve mentioned here before, is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Buffy, whom I very much relate to, is marked, like vampires, by having to walk two worlds (human and demon) and not be part of either but having composites of each. It seems perhaps like a silly reference, but when adapted into a less dichotomous way of thinking, it’s another media reference applicable to much of how I feel.
Trigger warning for mentions of sexual violence and associated feelings as well as other sensitive material.
For the first five years of my life, I lived in Mexico where the family I interacted with and the culture I lived in was Mexican. I was born into the wealthier class, sparing me the horrible conditions those in third-world poverty face every day. I recognize my privilege there, and the privilege I have by “looking white:” My mother grew up in the mid-Atlantic and has largely Polish and western European roots, while my father’s heritage is largely western European with very little indigenous Mexican mixed in. I have had a few people ask me if I was mixed race but for the most part, most people assume I’m white European. One person even asked me once if I was Belgian. (Oddly specific, right?)
The fact that I came from Mexico, have roots in Mexico, and was shaped by certain aspects of Mexican culture was something I did not–could not–forget when growing up in the mid-Atlantic. I didn’t identify with my “Mexicanness.” How could I? I saw my father maybe twice a year, maybe went to Mexico once every other year, often for less than two weeks. He wouldn’t speak to me in Spanish, and my mother, hurt by the collapse of another marriage (and sometimes racist), discouraged me from bonding with my father or exploring these roots. The Mexican side of my family was not accepting of me, having limited knowledge of my experiences, who I am, and subscribing to outdated ideas that are popular in every country and culture about how emotional, sensitive children are undisciplined brats. Even so, my “Mexicanness” was not forgotten by my classmates, and perhaps their racist comments didn’t hit me as hard as them calling me a “freak” or “psycho,” because I was never accepted as Mexican–even in Mexico. But I was never accepted as a white American, either, having those roots and cultural inclinations that only separated me further from everyone as opposed to driving me towards one culture or another. I think this was picked up by the best friend I grew up with who encouraged me to embrace the diversity of my heritage. She told me I indeed “looked Hispanic” in the warmest way possible; telling me that my full lips, light but still olivaster skin, dark eyes and thick hair were beautiful and refrshing, as she smiled at me with her alabaster skin, blue-gray eyes, and blonde hair, features I long-felt would have made me attractive, somehow less “undeserving” of love. She saw me as the anthesis of who everyone else did: She admired my complexity and inclinatio towards authenticity and saw my potential for forging my own path while everyone else tried to capture, belittle, and destroy it — but not by making me a fellow member but by instead discrediting me as an outlier.
These aren’t the only two worlds I don’t belong in. I was born into wealth but upon moving to the States, my mother, believing herself to be fiercely independent, relied on my father for child support, creating a bitterer congitive dissonance in her. My father, despite the support not being mandated, delivered on this substantially each month, but my mother, a compulsive spender, hoarder, and narcissist, did not manage the finances well, spent more time ruminating on how she “didn’t deserve” to be poor from all of her years of professionalism than carefully budgeting, planning, saving, and furthermore, trying to recognize and heal the pain drove her (self-)damaging behaviors. We were privileged enough once to have never worried about money, so when the room we had was no longer spacious, we needed to adjust our habits. My mother never did until there was literally no longer a choice not to. I grew up worrying about finances, as I was my mother’s friend-therapist-mother for a long time, and my mother often told me her concerns about not making the mortgage (or rent), not having enough for groceries, etc. We always seemed to make it growing up, but her panic was very real to me. While I wanted things, (every child does), I was more frugal and price-conscious as a child–so afraid of being more of a burden and causing more problems–than I was in my late teens and early twenties, when I got my own credit cards and was angry at everything and convinced I would die very soon anyway. During this time in my life, I definitely perpetuated the poor financial habits my mother had. I’ve since learned, formulating budgets and spending rarely beyond monthly credit card bills that are huge due to the damage I had already done. With no income but disability right now, no transportation, and a continued sturggle with medical issues that are unpredictable on a daily basis, maneuvering out of these circumstances will be difficult, although not impossible. I also came from a socioeconomic background where, with the majority of needs met, there was ample time, energy, safety, physical nourishment, and room to read, explore, and question, cultivating natural intelligences and curiosity we are all born with. For me, as a linguistic learner, I prove a force to be reckoned with in academia, undermined only by an intrapersonal learning style that I’m learning much better to manage. I recognize privilege here, too. I’ve had access to healing resources and have a learning style that allows easy absorption of knowledge. Having this style and eidetic linguistic memory on good days makes it easier for me to learn and succeed in a university setting. (Note: I’m actively enrolled to get my Bachelor’s Degree in Community and Public Health now. This is one reason I have not been posting regularly at all.)
I underwent repeated sexual assault as a child, my father, uncomfortable with emotions, was often emotionally absent, and my mother, a narcissist, only exhibits the empathy echo–behaviors of affirmation and support motived only by a self-serving purpose. The environments I lived in have always been toxic, but I reacted to my trauma with promiscuity, inspiring some people who knew my background to literally say, “If you were actually raped, you wouldn’t be like this.”
Some of these people were fellow survivors, whose reactions to their trauma clearly differed from mine but I respected the fact they still legitimately suffered this trauma. I could not understand why my reactions being unexpected or different somehow deligitimized all that I have endured and continue to endure.
I eventually became an apprentice of aloneness. Never a master, because constantly having to cope with feelings of exclusion made me feel very alienated and very unsupported–very inhuman, very “less than” those in the worlds around me. Because of this, I studied solitude and felt safer in it, because even though I was lonely, I was not in what I felt was constant danger. I became very intrapersonal then, delving into introspection and examining everything about myself. Growing up, much of this introspection was just unhealthy rumination. I brooded much more intensely and for much longer than a Byronic hero, putting contemporary vampire characters (Lestat, Angel, Edward) to shame. As my introspection became less mirrored of my trauma and mirrored more of wisdom I accrued, I began to master the art of introspection, which is not easy and it is not what most people are inclined to, or have the time and resources, to do–separating me further from others.
With this (often forced but also partially self-imposed) isolation, I realized interpersonal relationships are messy, complicated, because everyone is unique, a quiltwork of various components that symbolize something different to each and every one of us, and to ourselves. Our existences are our own interpretations of the mirrored beliefs, principles, and understandings of those who have or that which has the most influence on us–culture, religion, family, peers–and for some, the quiltwork is less complicated or less diverse. This doesn’t cheapen the quiltwork or even make it easier to communicate its meanings but perhaps it makes the world that person lives in simpler to make sense of. For me, my quiltwork is a labyrinth; a maze; an abyss. It is the house in House of Leaves because it really is just a quilt–I am just a human being. The house is just a house. Nothing more, nothing less than that. It’s the details and intricacies that are confusing, terrifying, and while this is true for all of us, there is so much inside me that can never be successfully communicated or understood, because my processes/interpretations, reactions, expectations are often different than most people’s or what they assume mine should be. As interpretations of reflection, we are, in many ways, limited by what we learn first. This is not to say we cannot vary the context of what we learn or that we can’t learn anything new–that is so far from the truth and is honestly a cop-out for us never confronting and cultivating our personal growth. However, the synapses we make to form new thoughts, beliefs, and understandings have to be bridged from one connection to another. The quiltwork is a network, and so adapting knowledge is crucial to true understanding. This is one of the reasons I often talk about how emotional pain is the universal language, because you may not actually know what it’s like to have undergone something like rape, but I know you likely know what it’s like to feel vulnerable, ashamed, and/or powerless at some point in your life. Whether or not you felt it to the same extent as I have, for duration or intensity, you know it’s not something you want to feel again, something that hurt and you had different limitations or needs when feeling that way than when you were feeling confident and happy. Whether or not you reacted the same way to that feeling, you should be able to relate, in-part to reacting badly to shame, wanting to be loved or forgiven–whether it was something you did, or for something that was done to you that you could not control. I’m sure you also understand what it’s like to want to make sense of something in your life that just doesn’t seem to, and maybe you understand the feeling when you learn that logic was sometimes misguided. No circumstances are ever exactly the same, so an important part of empathy is respecting our differences while understanding that we all have an interconnectedness; our quiltworks are patches of a universal tapestry.
Some us lack empathy because it is a language we never learned to understand, even if we can feign speaking it. In this case, that limitation interferes with the connections we make, and I truly feel bad for those without empathy. While living as my own interpretation, I am only privvy to so many of the worlds that comprise me with windows, and while I’m no longer lonely, I still often struggle with feelings of exclusion. But I can imagine it is much lonelier to not have windows; to be the same interpretation of mirrored beliefs, principles, and understandings that you were as a child; to never have the chance to grow beyond trauma and schemas driven by pain.
I used to see my empathy as a weakness. After all, I often extended support to people who were clearly deliberate in their intentions to hurt me or use me. The crueler someone was to me, the more I reasoned that it was because they needed love and understanding, and that’s what I would offer them. But it wasn’t love, mercy, or compassion that got me hurt. It was in fact a lack of self-love, self-compassion, and forgiveness of the self that perpetuated my complacency for toxicity. I feel this is a crucial distinction for people to make, especially as compassion, tolerance, and mercy more and more seem to be associated with complacency and submission when they are, in reality, wildly different. Learning to set and reinforce healthy boundaries is not only an act of self-love but an act of love, as a person who is not inclined to understanding is not going to be any more inclined if you do not let them learn. In order to exercise true compassion, we have to recognize and accept our limits and respect that others have theirs. We also have to recognize and accept when our limits change–either for the better or worse–and that sometimes they don’t. This is true of others, as well.
I have never truly identified with/as a culture, sexual orientation, religion, heritage, or even gender, but I have longed wanted to be a part of something more expansive and belong to a community, and understand that identity with certain things (e.g. orientation, gender, culture) for many people serves as a way for them to take collective pride in something others try to shame, exploit, and undermine. I have never had collective pride, as I am not accepted as part of a collective by the collective itself. Shame is a familiar emotion to me was once was the umbrella for how I saw myself and consequently, how I treated myself, and it was propagated against me by every community I tried to or wanted to be a part of.
I am a resident of the world with their own faith, and I am accepting that that is enough.