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Learning That I Can Be a Person Without Implicating Someone in My Definition of Self

by in Identity on 23rd August, 2021


There is a lot of life happening right now. 

I have been trying to unlearn my tendency towards codependency. I have grown into the comfort of caretaking – to only be Someone’s Something is safe. It does not require that I know who I am, that I define myself by who I am to myself or that I belong to myself. After moving out, I walked through Istanbul Airport, adrift, waiting for my flight to Toronto. Having never travelled alone, I was overcome with the realization that for the first time in my life, I belonged to no one, there was no one waiting for me outside the bathroom to walk with me through the airport and find a coffee. Less dramatically, there was no one to hold my bags while I went to the bathroom and I find that bathroom stalls are simply not big enough when you are travelling with a carry-on and a backpack and that you have to learn to just trust that your things will be safe under the sink. 

Alone, for the first time in my life, I began learning to drift.

I was walking in whatever direction seemed to make sense. I looked for one seat, not severalseats together. I stopped walking to browse aimlessly, I stooped down to tie my shoelaces and felt this weird sense of statelessness. I had nothing to do and no one to answer to, no one to return to. An overwhelming feeling of purposelessness and loneliness washed over me –

Who was I, when I was not walking towards someone else?

Am I built for this, a life meant to be lived only for myself?

Am I brave enough to come face to face with my own messiness, the tangled incoherence of recovery?  

Do I know how to be by myself? 

I have come to define myself by the role I play as Someone’s Something.

Not a student or a teacher or a researcher, but a daughter, sister, friend, duty-bound by emotional connection.  In the South Asian community, we are encouraged to see our families and our friends as extensions of ourselves.

Our collectivity is both protection and harm – it teaches us to care for others and simultaneously teaches us – especially women – to not care for ourselves.

Caretaking becomes the baseline of every decision and thought, and we are defined by the extent to which we can sacrifice ourselves at the altar of familial duty. We never learned to care for ourselves because it was always assumed that we wouldn’t need to. In so doing, we never really learned to know what we needed. I don’t mean to sounds as though I have not directly benefitted from this culture of collectivity, our understanding of togetherness has taught me that if I don’t want to face myself, I can hide in the custom of caretaking, and instead of reckoning with how loss has changed me, I can be far too preoccupied with others to notice. 

The people I love have never expected me to give up who I am for them. I did that by myself. I would have never left home, had my siblings and father not gently pushed me through the door, to the plane, telling me time and time again that I could and should start over, that I needed to figure out who I was. 

Leaving home meant I was finally coming to terms with years of loss and grief over my mother’s passing that I had not allowed myself to feel, and more importantly, finally admitting that I had used caretaking as an excuse to not face the ways that loss had changed who I was. 

I am learning that these relationships were never meant to take over; I am learning that I can be a person without implicating someone in my definition of self – not daughter, sister, or friend, just me. 

Leaving my family home to live with my sister while I finish graduate school is by no means a revolutionary act. I’m barely living alone, really. I am still surrounded by the ties of family and kinship. Leaving home after three years of being a secondary caretaker, however, meant detaching from my responsibility towards my family. It meant the absolute upheaval of everything I have come to define myself as. It has required that I separate cultural conditioning from the actuality of my family relationships, to identify what exactly it is that I have been hiding from, that I have been scared of. 

 I have not wanted to let life happen to me for a very long time.

A shield of people who need me and things that I need to do have kept life and uncertainty (and myself) outside of my space, have kept me safe from the potential of another loss. I am distinctly aware that I am afraid of my own inability to face another sadness, that I am constantly trying to save myself from any kind of vulnerability and insecurity. The safest way to do that is to extend all my energy towards being Someone’s Something. Being my own Something means that there is no shield – that when things happen to me, they are mine to process and recover from and learn from. When there is no one else to look to, I must look at myself and ask where I am going and how I will get there. I am learning that sometimes I will ask myself these questions and not know the answer and that when this happens, I must be comfortable with my own silence. 

As we land at Pearson Airport, rain pelts the runway. People shift, unbuckle their belts, switch on their phones. Sighs of relief, the odd cough. People turn to their travel partners and double-check whether they’ve remembered to pick up the odds and ends of an eleven-hour flight. Alone in my seat, all of a sudden, my mind is silent and I am strikingly aware of life. Mostly, I am aware of how much stillness it is requiring. I expected the beginning of this new life to be bursting with information, with the sparkling feeling of newness. Instead, I am dimly aware of the sounds of rain and the fact that I am by myself, and the rain is all mine to hear and listen to. If I was with someone, I would turn to them and say, “It’s raining” and define that moment by their reaction to it.

By myself, the rain is so inconsequential that outside of this moment, it is not worth mentioning to anyone else (or I mean, write a few thousand words on it). By myself, the rain is overwhelmingly poetic, a secret all to myself (and you, now). A thing that happened to me, for me to make sense of it and feel. 

This seems silly, I know. I feel silly saying it. I have never felt so empowered and vulnerable as I did that evening, realizing that the landing in Toronto in the rain was an experience I had all by myself, with no one to validate it or tell me how to feel about it. It’s so strange to not have that collective mind to look to for answers, to begin to trust my own memory, my own instinct. Letting go of my codependency means learning who I am, meeting myself where I am and tending to everything I am afraid of with grace. 

We confuse knowing ourselves with selfishness.

To define ourselves for who we are as individuals and not as extensions of our families and communities is mistaken for self-centredness, and perhaps, taken to an extreme it can be. Yet, while everything I am is rooted deeply in the tangled roots of my family history and my culture and community, moving forward requires branching our understanding of togetherness to make room for that lovely aloneness that allows us to differentiate between being alone and being lonely.  I am learning, in the most roundabout way, that I belong better when I have come to terms with aloneness. When I say aloneness, I mean that when I landed and it was raining and there was no one to talk to about the rain, I learned that I have always turned to everyone else to cue me into how I am feeling. 

During my layover in Istanbul, I bought myself a sparkly pink sweater and changed into it in the airport bathroom, wiggling into a pair of new socks while balancing myself by the bathroom door. It’s a first-day-of-school kind of silly spectacle: I want to feel lovely when I land. I want to arrive into this new life, not with the sweat and stink of a 24-hour journey but the lovely drifting smell of day-old perfume, not stale but lived in. I am suddenly aware – tingling, even – with the distinct realization that life is happening, to me, I am childishly giddy. When I leave the airport, into the cool evening rain, the wind on my face wakes me up. It really does feel like the first day of school, and I am both teacher and pupil, teaching myself how to feel things with grace and learning the lesson with some hesitation. 

We come from a culture that conflates aloneness with loneliness, and togetherness with belonging.

Life happens to all of us together or not at all.

This can be lovely sometimes – for three years, I was too scared to be alone and my family let me find my sense of self in being there for them. Now, however, I am finding the courage to keep on living. I am finding that I can be alone and that I am not lonely. I am finding that away from my family, I belong to them more than I ever have. I’m learning I like how much life can be when you let yourself experience it. I am learning I am not scared anymore. 

Life, lately, has been a thing happening to me. It is a lot. I love it. 

Mariam Vakani

Mariam Vakani

Mariam Vakani is a student, teacher, and writer working her way through grief and young adulthood. At any given point she is either cooking, reading, making a list, or talking someone's ear off about whatever her latest obsession is. Twitter: @mariamvakani. Connect with her on Instagram and Twitter at @mariamvakani.