I used to think I was part of a minority. Having grown up in Utah and escaped what can be described as a cult-like religion, I only knew a few others who had experienced what I had. However, after a conversation with a friend I realized that there might actually be a ton of people out there whose family will never know them. Sure, we all might struggle with our families from time to time, and often they are the only people who really know us best — having watched us grow up and develop our personalities through childhood and our teens — they know that place from which we originated. But to be a stranger to your own kin, well, that’s unique.
How does this happen? It starts with just growing up, since we (hopefully) don’t stay the same person we were in our young adult life. Experiences morph us, with the tragedies, victories, losses and sorrows inherent in living. And then, you evolve without your family having any idea of who you are, because you became cut off from them a long time ago. Once they lose track of you it’s very difficult — for most impossible — to every really know you again.
In my case, it comes down to religion. My family is devoutly Mormon, and because of that, they will never know who I actually am. Granted, it’s not all their fault. In running from that religion I ran from them — they were one and the same in my mind. And it is true; there are things they will never want to know about me because it would disturb them so. It would crush my parents to know how many sexual partners I’ve had in my life, to hear about the nights where I stumbled home pissed drunk, or the insane highs I achieved through lots and lots of drugs. All of these things are strictly forbidden in their culture, things which they will never understand.
They will never know the exhilarating feeling of hanging from the edge of a cliff, having gotten there by the strength of my own fingertips — because most of them are afraid of heights. They won’t know what it’s like to nearly die in the wilderness, because they hardly spend any time in it. My family will never realize what it felt like to divorce a bad marriage, put myself through graduate school and make a way for myself completely alone. They will never know what that loneliness has felt like — sometimes liberating, but mostly a cage where I have waited. I still wait.
My family won’t know how good of a climber I used to be, or what a talented snowboarder I am now. They’ll never know how it feels to conquer a mountain, run a ridge-line, or race down a single track on a mountain bike. They will never know of my courage, and the depths to which I have drawn from it. They won’t ever comprehend what it was like to leave the Mormon church — how much therapy, despair, anger and bitterness I went through for most of my twenties.
They will never know how it felt to be ostracized from them because of my non-belief, and how I continue to feel ostracized to this day. They claim to include me, but I will always feel separate, and I will always be treated as separate. I know they don’t mean to do it, and most of the time they don’t realize they’re doing it, but nonetheless, this is my reality.
Because my family doesn’t know me and never will, there is a barrier in our communication that can’t be seen across. We have difficulty speaking to one another because of that total lack of understanding. When you don’t know someone, or anything about what they’ve been through, how can you really talk to them or understand what they’re saying? And because of my family’s religion, everything is filtered through their compulsive judgement, seen through the lens of their belief system that says I am a sinner.
Though my family hasn’t known me for over 15 years now, I still find it hard to accept. Every time I try to nurture a small relationship with them, I am reminded that they still see me as a 16-year-old, because that might be the last time they ever really did know me. For them, I am frozen in time due to their lack of understanding. I will never be older, wiser, more educated or self-aware. This fact of life causes me the occasional pang of regret — to never be respected, admired or loved by my family the way I have been loved by others is possibly the saddest thing I’ve ever had to come to terms with.
This reality causes me such sorrow, that when I do speak to them or try to be included, it only makes it worse. Sometimes I feel as though the only action for me to take is to drift away completely, so that I might not continue to be haunted by this ever-present curse. Despite this separation, I am really very happy in my life, and don’t regret a single decision I have made. But because of where I am, I can never be where they are. We live on two separate planes, or perhaps even different dimensions. In their sheltered world they can never know mine, and I would rather die than return to theirs.
It gives me comfort that there are others out there who feel this same loss, this same gaping hole at which we uselessly try to reach across. I know what it’s like to gulp down feelings and pretend they don’t exist, so that I can prevent a total explosion of emotions based on false impressions. To be judged so overtly, to be so misunderstood by your own flesh and blood — it hurts to your very core. But in the end, sometimes that struggle, that pain, makes up who we are. And sometimes, you just have to let your family go, and embrace the one you’ve chosen — the family of friends who know who you really are. That’s who matters after all.
This essay has been nominated for The Flounce Non Fiction Writer’s Award 2015. Reader feedback in the comments section will be taken into consideration by the judges. Contest Rules.