My mom died at home in 2010. I was 42 years old.
As the funeral parlour came to take her body away, laying her carefully in the body bag that they would use to transport her, I launched myself on top of her. As my family and friends, and indeed the funeral people, looked on in horror at my uncharacteristic display, I screamed that they could not take her away, that they could not zip up the bag, that she would be cold, that I could not live without her.
It was the “I could not live without her” part that scared me most.
You see, I grew up in an alcoholic household. And children of alcoholic parents often become co-dependent. It means we struggle to find our own identity as we constantly shape shift to fit the mood and circumstance around us. In essence, we have no sense of self.
In my case, my identity was intrinsically intertwined with that of my mother’s. She and I, from as early as I can remember, stood firm against my father, protecting ourselves against his alcoholic tyranny. Even though he had been 30 years sober when she died, and she had never left him, I remained subliminally resolute in this cause. I had no idea who I was. Her likes were my likes, her dislikes my dislikes. When asked my favourite of anything, I would trot out my mother’s favourites as if they were my own. Our mission was clear, we had to stick together.
And then she died.
In the five years since her passing, I have had to learn to live life on my own terms. I have had to discover things about myself that are normally discovered when we are teenagers, preparing to venture out into the world as fully fledged adults. Whilst I got married, had children and seemed to be independent, in reality I was as psychologically and emotionally tied to my mom as you could imagine. I had absolutely no sense of self.
It has been a long five years. Discovering things about myself that are in stark contrast to what my mother liked or disliked or would approve or disapprove of, has been difficult to come to terms with. At times, I have felt as if I was betraying her in some way.
Sifting through what is her identity apart from what is mine is an ongoing process. But it is a process that must happen. In order for me to find true happiness, true contentment, true peace of mind, I need to do this.
It isn’t easy when you have absolutely no idea where your mom ends and where you begin. It isn’t easy realising you have lived almost half of your life unconsciously emulating the persona of someone else. A sort of midlife identity crisis on speed occurs. What are my own likes and dislikes? Were any of my dreams my own or were they always emulating what my mother wanted or didn’t want as the case may be? What do I actually feel about any number of issues? Are the thoughts inside my brain, actually my own? This level of co-dependency is very dysfunctional.
Recently, I discovered that my favourite colour is teal. I had always thought it was red. My mother had always loved me in red and so, in order to please, as co-dependents are wont to do, I would declare that red was my favourite colour. Such was my belief in this, that when my mom passed and I decided to treat myself to a new car, I chose the colour red.
In an attempt to “find myself”, I enrolled in an online course that is aimed at exploring our own creativity – what our likes and dislikes are, where our strengths lie, what we are drawn to, what we are not, that sort of thing. In this course, we started off with a small exercise.
The idea was that we should take some magazines, page through them, and tear out parts of the magazine that “spoke” to us, in particular the colour. We shouldn’t think about it, just do it, working really quickly. We were then to stick those pieces of paper down and see what emerged. What emerged for me was a sea of teal. I had just discovered, at the age of 47, my favourite colour.
And it felt so good.
I am encouraged by this small step to continue to my journey of self discovery. As I approach my second act in life when most women my age are thinking of career changes, or a more creative direction, I am simply looking to release the chains of co-dependency. I am simply looking for me.