Written by Reshma Mohan
Photos by Farrin Khan
Ah, I can still remember the day I moved out of my parent’s house to make the tedious journey from India to the United States. It was on August 22nd, 2014 that I decided to take the plunge and go on this journey that we call “adulthood.” I remember spending the 22-hour plane journey fantasizing about all of the excitement and freedom that comes with being an “adult.” Little did I know that all of my dreams would be squashed by the things that I have grown up with.
Throughout my life as an “adult,” there were, and still are, several moments when I question the milestones of this journey that I am on. Part of that questioning comes with the fact that I constantly wonder whether or not I am my family’s version of what they consider to be an “adult.” On that plane ride in 2014, I imagined this to be a chance to finally distance myself from the qualities of my family and their values that I despised the most. I had no idea that it would take a lot more work than just physically moving away from home to truly distance myself from what I have grown up around.
How did I know this, you ask? Well, I constantly find myself thinking about the ways in which my own mother has often defined the world. Her outlooks, as I have observed, have not only shaped the being that I am today, but they are also responsible for the way in which I see the world. For instance, my mother, and my entire Southeast Asian family, have always had interesting (or often negative) views on showing vulnerability, or in my mother’s words, “weakness” to the public. In most cases, showing any kind of “weakness” on her part was followed by her desperate attempts to either run or cover it up.
The most prominent example of this was around October 15th, 2005, the time when my father passed away. In spite of dissociating for most of the day due to shock, I clearly remember that she was trying her best to avoid being seen by anyone during the funeral. If anything, she often shooed me and anyone else who tried to console her through her loud sobs and heavy-hearted sighs. I even recall that she managed to use some of her energy to give me an earful about how I should be handling this situation. In fact, her little lecture still rings in my head till this day:
“Reshma, there is no point in crying now. He is gone. It is over and done. No one here is on your side and you cannot expect anyone here to understand what you are going through. You cannot ever show weakness like this in front of anyone. It doesn’t look good for me, or even this family. Do you understand? God, you don’t even know what the world is like. You have no idea what life is like. I am the only one you should be thinking about. Now, go get whatever clothes you can carry and get in the car, we are leaving. I do not want to see or talk to anyone.”
To be honest, I still don’t know how to process what she said to me that day. Not only did I have to forgo my chance to pay my respects to my late father, but I had just realised that my emotions have no use for the situation that I was in. Like she said, I had to focus on the honor of my family and taking care of my mother, right? It is like she said; people will not understand my tears. So, that is what I did. I spent most of my childhood taking care of my mother and listening to her as she coached me on how to hide my feelings from the world.
Her lecture was not something that I was able to discount after that day. To be honest, that speech had one of the most cruelest and heartbreaking messages out of anything anyone has ever said to me. Was my worth as a human being really reduced to how I can display myself superficially? Was “family honor” really all that mattered? Throughout my childhood, I found myself trying to turn my emotions “off” as much as I could. That is still something that I try to do, and I hate that. That was when I first felt shame. It was really harrowing, to be very frank. I didn’t like it very much.
As an “adult,” I still find myself practicing my childhood behaviors of always reminding myself of my family’s honor, and that my feelings are not of relevance to anyone else around me. This has not allowed me to develop a healthy relationship between myself and my own emotions. This, as you can imagine, is not the best case scenario when you deal with the borage of failed relationships, career disappointments and academic stressors that come with being a college student.
As time went on, I found myself emulating my mother’s behavior almost exactly! Whether it be hiding my emotions and isolating from friends and acquaintances, or coping with the constant and ever-changing waves of grief by drowning myself in several glasses of white wine, I am emulating my mother. That being said, I don’t particularly like the fact that I am turning into my mother’s clone. In fact, I would say that it has hindered my ability to form and maintain genuine connections in my life. To be honest, the learned shame that I have associated with vulnerability has paved the way for me falling into a depressive state. As you can guess, this managed to exacerbate not only my feelings of shame, but also my inability to live a meaningful life.
While I did the very millennial thing and googled the reasons for my shame and how it relates to my depression, I found something quite interesting. A quote from the article “Moving Beyond The Shame Fog” managed to summarize my struggle in just a few lines:
I remember driving driving through the hills of West Virginia once and a blanket of fog moved in without warning. It was so thick, I could not see the yellow markers on the side nor the white lines lines in the middle of the highway. I had to stop my car until the fog dissipated (Kelly, Jr.).
To be honest, my adult life feels very much like driving through the hills in the fog in the way that the author of the article describes. Another commonality that the author of the article and I share is that we both allegorize the fog to the shame that surrounds mental illness; I compared the fog to the blinding effect that my family values and thoughts around vulnerability have resulted in. How can I even go about living a fruitful life when the fog of my suppressive upbringing clouds the path in front of me?
With my curiosity piqued, I continue to read the article. The author goes on to say that one of the major influences that helped him live the “shame fog” was to challenge his own self-image. I wonder, is it even possible to challenge my own conception of who I have become at this point? The bigger question I have to ask is whether I am my own person at this moment. With all of the ways I am finding myself emulating the behaviors of my own mother, I can’t help but think that I am nothing more than an image of what my family wants me to be. Am I truly nothing more than a shallow image of my family values? Is there no way out of the emptiness that I feel?
Just as I start to contemplate my life choices, I read further in the article that another major influence that helped the author was to reframe recovery. He goes on to say that he heard of a recovery movement that focused on regaining control of one’s life. I found this to be intriguing. I wonder what it means to “regain control” of my life. Does this mean I had very little control to begin with? Am I really that much of a victim to my family’s outlook of the world?
That also made me think of the ways in which I still define what it meant to be an adult. Doing all of this self-reflection (and writing this, I should say) proves to me that I am nothing more than a child with the ability to walk into a bar and get a drink. As much as I believed that being a twenty-something graduate student made me an adult, I realized that I never gained the ability to see myself as someone who can use the time away from my family to reframe the way I see myself and the world around me. In essence, that makes me nothing more than a child. So, I have inadvertently forced myself to take several steps back in an attempt to take many more steps forward.
That being said, the next question I should be asking myself is “how do I become an adult, then?” To be honest, I don’t think that I can really answer that question. In my quest for answers or clues of sorts, I managed to come across a TED talk called “Listening To Shame” by Berné Brown, and I have to say, she has provided some wonderful insights. The biggest takeaway from her talk is that I have to learn how to confront the shame that I have been feeling since my father’s death. In fact, she claims “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” So, it all comes back down to the thing my mom has often referred to as a weakness. Funny, isn’t it? The one and only way for me to become an adult is to confront the values that have surrounded me for years. The thing is, I have absolutely no idea as to how to do that. I guess that is my reason for writing this. What does it really mean to be my own person? Is that even a possibility?
Now, I am sure that I am not alone in the struggle to find either the answers to my questions, and seek my own individuality as a millennial. I think I can also say the same for anyone who has moved away from home recently (or ever). I often find that family values, whether good or bad, end up creeping back and playing a big part in terms of making our marks as adults in society. In order to become a true “individual” with the ability to question what we have grown up around, it takes a lot more work than a college degree can ever prepare us for. This, I find, is one of the many struggles of my fellow millennial friends, and I think that I could find some comfort in knowing that I am not alone in the slightest bit.
I also take comfort in the fact that there is always room for growth and positive change. I know that it is going to be an uphill journey for all of us, but I would like to think that there is light at the end of the tunnel. I would like to believe that there will be a day when I can face my darkest emotions without my mother’s domineering voice booming in my head. I would like to think that there will come a day for me, and for all of us on the journey to establishing ourselves as adults, that we will finally be free of the leashes of our familial values. There will be a day when our generation, or “millennials,” will take back our authority and truly become the individuals that we are trying so hard to be.