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Is it possible to outgrow your own family?

Graduation Party, May 2018

Growing up, I was close to my mom’s side of the family. I was the only girl until I was about ten years old, but there were a lot of boys; still are. And I was one the guys. I loved it. To this day, I get along better with men than I do women, which is really hard when I’m trying to date women. But I digress.

In my teen years into young adulthood, one of my best friends was my cousin. He’s two years younger than me, and we shared a love for writing bad poetry. I could talk to him about anything, and he’d send me text messages his girlfriend had sent him that he couldn’t figure out because her text-speak was so confusing. He was the one in my family I talked to most about my abuse. He was the one who understood.

Being the second oldest (my brother being the first) of the clan, I was the first to move out and to move far. I went to pursue my MFA in Pittsburgh, PA, where I also taught seminars to pay my own bills and rent. I lived in a studio apartment by myself, seven hours away from the people I loved the most. No longer was I forty-five minutes down the parkway. No longer did I go to all of the family gatherings, only showing up for Christmas when I had two weeks off.

But thank goodness for technology, right? I guess. Sure, my cousin and I messaged each other. My family and I are all friends on Facebook, so they could keep up with me, and I with them. We were able to communicate in so many ways — phone, text, social media, email — that, after a while, we didn’t communicate at all.

When I was first hospitalized as an outpatient for three months, my aunts got wind of how much my mental illness was really hurting me. They hadn’t known much about it until then. My mom hadn’t wanted to share this information with them. She wanted things to be the same, as they were before when I was back at home and everything was okay.

My aunts were so helpful, talking to me several times to validate how I felt and to tell me I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. That’s when I learned that childhood depression runs in my family. If only we had talked earlier, I thought. However, when I did move closer to home after two years of being in Pittsburgh, I felt like I was even farther away.

I didn’t come home to fanfare or open arms. I came back to silence.

I moved to New York City to pursue my MFA at a different school that was more diverse and understood me better, not to mention my dream of moving to the big city to work in children’s publishing and write novels and poetry, like a real Williamsburg hipster.

My cousin, my best friend, wanted me home, not close to home, but home. He said my mental health was killing me, and maybe it was, as a month later, I was calling my parents in the middle of the night, from a bridge, asking them to take care of my dog when I was gone. But I couldn’t stay at home, not where all the years of abuse happened, where I would only fester in the memories. Where I grew up wasn’t home anymore — in fact, it never had been. NYC is home now.

And perhaps that’s when I severed the ties between my family and me. Maybe I did it by not going back to my parents’ house. I knew I couldn’t and didn’t want to return to them. It hurt too much to sleep in the same bed, where I could only remember pain, and the opportunity in NYC was too great to give up; I had gotten into my first-choice school.

But how could I tell my family that their world, the one in which I grew up, only overwhelmed me with misery? How could I explain to them that I need to move on, that I rather eat dollar slice pizzas every other day than go back which would’ve felt like failure? With that, I was on my own — physically closer but emotionally so distant.

My cousin no longer spoke to me. My family stopped reaching out, even when I was in the hospital again, though my parents never missed visiting hours. And even though I didn’t make it to the impromptu gatherings, I tried to make it for all the planned days, even when I was working seven days a week and going to school full-time. When I did make it out to see my family, no one spoke to me. No one asked how I was doing. There was only talk of video games and gossip, the conversation the same as before I left for Pittsburgh.

I realized I had grown. I had moved on without my family. It’s obvious that people change, but relationships flourish when the people in them grow together. We didn’t grow together. If anything, I grew on a separate tree branch, sprouting differently shaped leaves. I was the outlier on a plant that had once been spruced to look symmetrical.

I want the closeness of family again. I yearn to be one of the guys again (we only have three girls but so many boys). I think that’s what they want too, but that isn’t possible anymore. I’ve lived too much, and my cousins haven’t. Part of me hopes it stays that way to keep them from getting hurt like I’ve been, but at the same time, I hope for them to get out of the suburbs and experience the world outside of the bubble where we were raised.

However, this living, this experiencing, this striving to achieve my goals and to start my career — a life I can be proud of— cost me my family. I have my MFA, I interned at top publishing companies in the world, and I write novels. But I don’t have the support of my family. Only my immediate family attended my graduation, while the whole family attended high school and middle school graduations for my cousins.

Though, my parents arranged a graduation party for me, for which I was so grateful. I could finally share what I’d been working on, what is part of my career as a writer, what is so precious and dear to me. When I showed them the recording of my thesis reading, there was no reaction. No “Good job.” Not even the “Well, it was well-written,” that I despised from my mother at graduation. I would’ve taken that over the silence, the clear disapproval of my work that I love and had worked so hard on during my time in school. My excitement died in that room, as did my hope for a rekindled bond.

I’m older now. I yearn for deep conversations and discussions about the world around us, not just the small town they all live in now. I want to talk about reality. I want to know how my cousins are really doing. I want my aunts and uncles to ask me how I’m doing mentally, emotionally, and generally. These conversations have brought my friends and I closer, have given us intellectual and emotional connection. And maybe that’s what I seek now. Not the comforts of childhood, though I am known to dwell in my own childhood and work with children.

But my family hasn’t grown with me. My cousins, even my old best friend, have aged but haven’t grown in the way that I have. And suddenly, I realize, I’m not “one of them” anymore. I’m not one of the adults either, though I am an adult in my own right. So when I do see my family, there’s silence, and I’m ostracized. There’s a line between everyone else and me, one that I’ve crossed and can’t go back.

From this side of that line, I’ll wait until they cross it too. And maybe we will find that closeness again. Though, for now, my family is connected to me by blood — no longer by words, no longer by the distance between my house and theirs, no longer by the silly things. But I will continue to grow my own leaves on my own branch and hope their colors change with mine.