During a business trip, well into my adulthood, I had what I can only describe as an epiphany. I was there as a sign language interpreter at a national conference for researchers who all hold multiple degrees and stand up on stage to share their knowledge and insights with large audiences of their peers. As an interpreter, I am there to provide access to their brilliance, their words, thoughts, and original work.
These conferences are filled with long hours and heavy topics, so when we had an extended lunch break, I did what we all do and checked social media on my phone for the 1,365th time that day. It was at this moment after I ate my mediocre food and in a drab conference center in uncomfortable tights, surrounded by a few close friends and coworkers, that I had an epiphany. From Facebook of all places. A full-on, light bulb in my brain turning on and making connections from the deep recesses of my memories, holding in tears so as not to completely embarrass myself, kind of epiphany.
I follow all sorts of shit on Facebook. For the most part, I just scroll on by mindlessly like the rest of the universe. I follow a few authors. One of them is David Sheff. He wrote the book “Beautiful Boy,” which later became a movie. I follow him along with a whole array of things related to addiction because for someone who has never had an addiction to anything; never even so much as smoked a joint, addiction has been one of the constants in my life. Always there, silent, painful and following me around everywhere I go (even to this boring conference with thousands of people doing much bigger things with their lives than I ever will). David Sheff posted something long, but it was the first seven words, and they weren’t even his words, that stopped me in my tracks. It was a quote of a comment someone had made to him about being the sibling of a person with an addiction.
“You learn to be small to survive.”
There it was. My whole life condensed. It could all be traced back to these words. In a matter of seconds, I could see the multitude of ways that this had become my story. My incessant and undying need to be a people pleaser. My smiling non-stop ridiculous perma-grin. Resting bitch face? Nah, resting smile face. Like me, please. I could see myself learning this lesson, learning to be small at eleven years old. It was what led me right there, to that conference center as a sign language interpreter. A profession where I am functionally invisible, topics and opinions always belonging to other people, my own tucked quietly inside. The ways I parent, the ways I LIVE. Small small small small small.
Who would I be today if this weren’t my story? Would I be here at this conference as a presenter to share my life’s work with an engaged audience instead of as an interpreter? Would I still be painfully shy and avoid small talk? Would I still say yes to absolutely everything, including the things that make me sick thinking about how much I don’t want to do them?
These seven words were the kind of epiphany that we hear about, read about, and see in movies. But there I was, sitting in the conference center among intelligent people in suits who had things to say and weren’t afraid to say them. Fireworks didn’t go off, and nothing changed except my own internal level of distraction. I attempted to share this earth-shattering news with a few. I mentioned it to my friend, my favorite co-worker to travel with. I shared it on Facebook, putting those seven words in quotations. I sent my husband a text about it and tried to explain what it meant. The thing with epiphanies, though, is that they are only mind-blowing to the person having them. My friend and my husband were kind, but what could they really say? My Facebook post, the one that could encompass my entire life experience, received exactly one like. Actually, it was a “love,” but one reaction nonetheless. The impact of this news on the rest of the world was small, just like me.
This seemingly inconsequential social media post is what I credit to sparking a change in myself. In a way, it is the reason you are here, on an actual website that was created by an idea from my own brain. The reason I push hard against my comfort zone and write these words for anyone with the internet to read. I am no longer small or willing to play small with my life to placate everyone around me.
Many years ago, I stood as a child with my mom in a hospital. My youngest brother was a baby and screaming at the top of his lungs as multiple attempts at starting an IV had failed. My oldest brother was missing. My dad was home with the police. A barn down the street from our house was on fire, and we all feared my older brother’s body would be found when the smoke cleared. Our lives were in chaos. I was so quiet at that moment, despite the noise of the screaming baby and terrifying thoughts in my mind. I focused all of my energy on being in as close physical proximity to my mom as I could get. I didn’t do this so that she would provide me comfort; I did it to provide HER comfort. I wanted calm energy to flow out of me and into her. I wanted to soothe her pain and be a pillar of strength for her to lean on while the foundation felt like it was crumbling.
That role became so comfortable to me. I trace it back to so many parts of my life. Even into adulthood, I would call my mom daily, and I would know within a minute of her answering if she was emitting worry and stress, and I would try to counter her feelings by giving her the calm and peace I so desperately wanted her to have. I did it so quietly. Now that she is gone, I miss that spiritual connection I had developed with her from such a young age. It was unique and difficult to put words to; it was ours. It is one of the reasons her death was so shattering to me. It had felt like our souls had intertwined together during so many of these moments over the years, and when she died, it caused me to unravel.
She would not have described me as small, and I don’t mean to discredit or berate myself by claiming that I was. But my personality shaped around the chaos in an attempt to save and shelter everyone around me while I pushed my own thoughts, fears, and wants deep down. So far down, I am still unpacking which pieces of my personality are my true self and which pieces were born as a defense mechanism and still need to be shed.
My true self has pushed against this protective barrier I built so well and made appearances over the years. It pushes me to be brave and leave the safety of my quiet smallness. It is the reason I have run a marathon, hiked 46 of the tallest mountains in NY state, spoken out in video interviews about my losses, and most of all, it is the reason that I was able to create this. To allow myself to create, to write, open and vulnerable, and share it widely.
If my mom could stand here today, I would still stand close to her and trade energies. I would radiate in her orbit. The only difference is that now, she would see the self that she always saw within me, shining bright, open, and outwardly to the world. She would see the way these small epiphanies have led me closer to my authentic self, the self that is beneath all of the trauma she tried to protect me from.
If you are interested in the author I mentioned in the article, David Sheff (author of the book Beautiful Boy which later became a movie) you can visit his website here. To read more about my own experiences growing up with siblings living with addiction, check out Anticipatory Grief and Overdose Death.