Everyone labels themselves. A sociology class in university taught me that we find like-minded people and assimilate to them for survival. What happens when you don’t have anyone who is like you? What happens if you don’t have anyone to assimilate to because the people in your peer group aren’t going through the same life experiences as you are? Does that mean you don’t survive? I can tell you…you barely do!
I got married at 24, to my high school sweetheart on our 10-year dating anniversary in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I had no friends getting married at the time. Most of my friends were dating, enrolled in graduate programs or living a single life. I can honestly say that throughout my “engagement” (if you can even call it that), no one was excited for me! I was three provinces away from my family and friends, living in my cousin’s basement and my closest friends were out partying and living a care-free life. Fast forward to 2014 when we split. I was 26 going through a divorce, watching my Dad die right before my eyes. Most of my friends were dating or getting engaged, finishing up grad school and getting career jobs in place. I felt so alone during this time. My young, care-free friends were starting their lives as I felt like mine was ending.
I met my fiancé in 2015. I would say we were serious fast. He wanted me to meet his kids earlier on because, he said it felt right. He told me that he had started to develop strong feelings for me, but before he could and would continue a relationship with me, he wanted to make sure it felt comfortable and ok for the kids too. If it didn’t work with them, it couldn’t have worked with us. He wanted to make sure it was a good fit for everyone, if I was going to be a permanent addition to the family. Fast forward to his accident in July 2016. He was the driver in an accident that resulted in the death of a passenger and serious injuries of another passenger (both in his vehicle). While my friends were planning their weddings and starting to have their own babies, I was in step-mom mode of 3. I was preparing for court dates for child custody agreements and his criminal charges. I was so freaking alone. There was no one in my life that was a step-parent and there was certainly no one I knew going through criminal law. It was terrifying. I couldn’t fit in anywhere and I didn’t think I could and would make it.
When someone you love does unspeakable or taboo things, everything around you becomes the enemy. I didn’t even know if I could trust my own mother with the things that I would tell her in fear that she would hate him. I had to keep a lot of it to myself in order to protect my boyfriend and also to protect our relationship. I would immediately hear things like “leave him”, “you don’t need this crap”, “it’s his cross to carry”. I knew that all these words came from love, but I just couldn’t leave him. He was the missing piece I looked for, my whole life! I found myself only confiding in my boyfriend’s sister and Mom; the two people who knew him the way I did. The two people that I knew I could say the truth about how much I hated what he did, but I knew that they would still love him unconditionally the way that I did. I would confide in my friend at work because though I knew she had her own opinions, wouldn’t voice them to me; rather be an ear for me. I would confide in my Mom, it was hard because she was newly widowed. That was it. That was my circle. I still couldn’t fit in with any of them though.
So what happens when you live the last….ummm…10 years…..not being able to assimilate? Does it mean that you don’t survive? Does it mean that you live unhappily? YES! Well, for parts of it anyways! Brutal truth, how can you be happy when everyone around you is thriving? Or at least it is perceived as thriving. We all want to fit in and have a place where we feel accepted and understood! How can you feel accepted and understood when you are a 28 year old divorcee, living with a pending criminal looking at jail time and all your friends are going to vineyards for wine tasting dates on a Saturday afternoon while planning their $50,000 wedding? You don’t!
Ok, so maybe I sound angry! Maybe you’re reading this thinking: “Michelle, you chose this, you chose this life, so why are you so angry?” The truth is, the only thing I chose in staying with my fiancé is love. I chose all of this because of the deep love that I have for him and the deep love he has for me. It’s that simple. I have been lonely. I have been sad. I have felt like I don’t fit in. I have felt unappreciated for the crap I have endured. I have felt like I don’t belong. But, I think that’s a lot of us! Isn’t it?
I’m sure there’s a step-parent reading this thinking, I never feel like I fit in with my own family. I feel like I don’t know where my place is in the 4 walls of my own home. I’m sure there’s a Mom or Dad reading this, as their child with special needs tugs at their arm for the 49th time today to charge their iPad thinking, my friends on Facebook (with their typically developing kids, hitting milestones) don’t understand my pain and fear and loneliness. I’m sure that there’s a person reading this who loves someone so BIG with a mental illness (or maybe they have a mental illness themselves) thinking that they don’t belong, that they don’t fit, that people don’t get it. The saddest part about not fitting in for me was the fact that I felt like I had to hide. It became a shameful place, an even lonelier place!
What I have learned by talking about my truth is that people are all going through something. There is something about each and every one of us that may be a bit shameful or a little embarrassing. There is something about each of us that we choose to keep hidden or a secret because we just don’t want to hear the unsolicited opinions of others. I can tell you that I have felt that way over and over again. Keeping things hidden meant that maybe my truth “wasn’t that bad”, or maybe if it wasn’t out there I could somehow re-write it. Maybe it didn’t have to be a reality. Maybe I could somehow make it appear to be better than it really was and people wouldn’t think less of me.
I learned in therapy that there is shame in secrets. From that day I stopped with the secrets! I started talking about all of it. Every part of it. I answered the questions that people asked me to the best of my ability honestly. I talked about all the hard things in my life to anyone that would listen. I stopped caring about the wide-eyed looks that I got. I stopped caring about the initial reactions and opinions. Truth be told, we are going to be judged anyways. Why not live authentically? I have been able to really sort through who I want in my life and who I don’t this way.
I learned that my Sociology class was probably wrong. We don’t need to assimilate to survive. We survive because we wake up each day, brave. There’s a fight in each of us that we may not know is there until we are left feeling alone, misunderstood and misplaced.
To the special needs Mom, struggling to keep your eye balls open because you’re exhausted; I see you. To the chubby kid, wishing they could wear cool clothes like their friends; I see you. To the person struggling with their mental-illness; I see you. To the spouse of an inmate; I see you. You may not feel like you belong, but even those struggling have a place. An important place! These are the true fighters of the world. I’m proud of you!
I am a 33 year old Step-Mom to three kids who would describe me as a dramatic, fun-loving hopeless romantic (insert eyeroll). Transplanted from Pickering, Ontario and currently living in Calgary, Alberta. My friends would describe me as an open-book, a safe space and an ever evolving shoulder to cry on (my friend told me to say that). I work with children with special needs; a career inspired by my involvement with Willowjak. I have been thrown some pretty big curve balls in my short time here on this planet but, have faced them with a good book in hand and a cup of tea on my night stand. My hope is that what I have experienced in my life can be of use to others. Some support to prove that we are not alone; though we may feel like we are, that we are seen; though we feel invisible and that we have a voice; though we may not know we have one yet.
You can hear more about Michelle’s story when she appeared as a guest on Willowjak’s ‘Choose Your Own After’, by listening HERE.