When I was 22, I stopped my Masters degree to became a full time carer for my terminally ill mum; she had cancer. She’d first been diagnosed at the age of 41 and had chemotherapy and radiotherapy which succeeded – together with an iron determination – in keeping it in remission for around 12 years. Like the world’s most toxic boomerang, it returned with a vengeance twice more in less than two years and the third time it ultimately defeated her. She was 54.
If I reflect on her last moments, I can remember with a clarity of vision far superior than any curved TV, holding her hand and hearing her breaths slowly being further and further apart whilst my heart raced faster and faster at the truth whose light was blinding but to which I refused to open my eyes and acknowledge. And then she left – finally released from the tortuous prison of physical pain to a world, I choose to believe, of spiritual serenity and every freedom imaginable.
So as mum’s physical life ended, that’s when the next chapter of my own, began.
I couldn’t cook, drive, hadn’t ever paid a bill or run a household before. But in the wake of the trail left by the unwanted boomerang here was its gift to me. I’m the eldest of three siblings; at the time, one was at university and the other was two months away from his GCSE exams. My father is a traditional Gujarati man (think dhal, bath, shak, rotli* most nights, Indian TV series and cricket and you’ll get the idea). So I stepped up; not like the steps you use at a circuit class, I mean I stepped up (imagine the furthest your right leg can reach on a staircase whilst your left foot is rooted to the bottom step, and you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about).
I learned to cook (the rotlis* resembled a politically incorrect and geographically questionable world atlas but were edible nonetheless), took driving lessons, kept my home in order, supported my siblings through their exams with innumerable pick ups and drop offs to the middle one’s halls of residence and the younger one’s exam sittings, took over the administration of my dad’s business and resumed my Masters degree. I was doing great; all systems going simultaneously and everything in order. I mean who needs a break when you’re functioning on permanent autopilot mode?
Smelling the coffee
I was living a lie and the worst thing was that I was both the perpetrator and the victim of it. When mum died, in the flick of an emotional switch, the blinkers came on – I was in survival mode and no peripheral emotions or distractions were going to take me off track. So far in life I’d conquered many challenges and this was going to be just another thing that I’d do – successfully of course because there was no alternative. We had to eat, get to places, survive and so much more.
Nearly 20 years later I’ve learned that the way I’d dealt with everything back then was that I hadn’t actually dealt with them.
I prioritised everyone else’s needs not stopping to consider what mine actually were. I thought I was performing a service by being self-effacing and devoting myself to the progress and happiness of those around me. But the truth is that I hadn’t grieved; I denied myself the breathing space to understand what was happening and allow the support network I had around me, in. I was afraid that by showing my vulnerability people would assume I wasn’t coping and would try and take over, threatening the stability of my family.
What a fanciful story I told myself; I had an answer for every scenario, an excuse to hand perpetually as to why I should just keep my head down and keep going. I was a super charged landmine waiting to be triggered before an epic explosion. I’ve learnt this through lots of reflection and coaching conversations that have helped me to grieve for the loss of my mum and for the girl who lost her youth but which has also enriched my relationships and taught me to feature in my own life.
The new ‘me’
Now, I’m much more attuned to my own feelings; if I keep having a recurring thought I know that something’s bothered me and I’ll do something about it. I make time for me without a side dose of guilt that my children will be psychologically damaged because I’ve missed a bath and story time. I’ll sit in a café reading the latest No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency instalment or meet up with friends for a nice meal knowing that by investing in my own well being, I’m best serving those around me because they get a fulfilled and happy mummy, wife, sister, friend and daughter.
I’m no expert; I can’t dispense educated advice on why you behave the way that you do or whether you feature enough in your own life. That’s a path for you to explore when it feels right for you. But from my experience I can say that it’s absolutely worth pausing to reflect on your life experiences, your fears and whether you are your authentic self or wearing the personas you think that others expect to see.
In my case, I didn’t get a handle on my grief and instead let it handle me by shaping how I featured in my relationships. My grief wore a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak that was so convincing even I didn’t know it was there. But it was deceptive because it seeped into every aspect of my life and bore itself out in many shapes and forms – it created an inner neediness that led me into destructive relationships, created a feeling of heightened paranoia and sat on my sense of worthiness like an elephant on a daisy craning its neck towards the sun.
I’m inviting you to stop, reflect and take stock of your own relationships. How do you feel when you see or speak to the people that matter most to you? Then ask yourself why – is it because you can show up as your no-holds-barred true self or is there a tension within, an inner rod in your back that stiffens and causes you to behave a certain way? If it’s the latter, you can live with it or you can do something about it.
Truth doesn’t have to be painful. Unless it’s your little sister telling you, you look like a demon from an ancient Indian legend because yes, your hair really was that long, black and poofy when blowdried. Maybe she could have kept that one hidden. Or at least introduced me to anti-frizz spray.
Until next time,
*staple Indian meal of pulses (dhal), rice (bath), a dry vegetable curry (shak) and flatbreads also described as chappatis (rotli)