My own story of belonging is both different from and similar to Brené’s.
Sure, school was sometimes a challenge. In the early years because I knew Santa Claus was based on the historical St. Nick, and, I suppose, because I felt obliged to tell the other kids. I thought they would thank me. They didn’t.
That same quirk in my personality is probably why classmates started calling me Professor in 5th grade.
By then, my parents had divorced and 5th grade meant a new school on the opposite side of Chicago. The first week was rough. I didn’t fit in. The kids made fun of me. So, after crying my eyes out at the end of each day, I figured I really only had one option: use my oddity as an advantage. If I couldn’t be like the others, I might as well really stand out.
In this regard, my father was my role model. He enjoyed standing out. He wore bow ties and a clerical collar. He skipped down the street holding my hand. He read poetry while waiting at doctor’s offices and would recite it from memory. He was a little guy with a big personality. He was filled with trivia that was actually interesting and not inane. People mostly loved my dad. They enjoyed his oddness, his booming laugh, and his penchant for turning conversations into an amusing and enlightening exchange. Being like him was a good thing.
The only place this worked against me was at home. By the time I was a teenager, my mother and sister would often say, “You’re so much like your father.” I knew that wasn’t a compliment. And it’s probably, in part, what drew me closer to him. He was an oddball and so was I. We understood each other.
But like Brené, my sense of security was a little turned inside out when my parents fought and divorced. I aligned myself with my father while living with my mother. I knew they both loved me but had a sneaking suspicion that my mother loved me conditionally, while my father loved me no matter what. Since my father was an extrovert and his world seemed larger than my mother’s, it took decades before I understood that I had sacrificed my individuality for the safety of being like him. Being like him assured me that I belonged.
It wasn’t until my father died of AIDS in 1990, that I truly felt I belonged somewhere outside of with my father. And yet, my father was the catalyst. Now I was part of a community of people with HIV, their caregivers, and friends. We were all on the front lines: whether in our homes, in community agencies, or in hospitals. We were bonded by our battle, connected in our grief. Mainstream society shunned us. We were outcasts. But together, we were family. With each other, we belonged.
The friends I made during those years are still some of my dearest friends today. We are our own minyan. Almost 30 years later, we are still a special kind of family.
That’s the thing with family – there is always a bond. Even when estranged, family is an identity we can’t shake. Family is our origin story. Every other story of our lives builds on this one. No biography is complete without it.
And then, if we’re lucky, we have several families. The one we grew up with, the ones we created, and the ones in which we were adopted.
As I’ve said before, I loved the Wood River Valley in Idaho and I loved my home in Picabo. But I never felt like I fit in with the people there. I didn’t dress like them and I didn’t share their interests. If it wasn’t for my boyfriend at the time and his mother and family who accepted me, I probably would have left long before I did. Because of them, I’ll always have a home there. But being loved by people doesn’t always mean you belong to a place.
At a certain point in my adult life – I can’t remember exactly when – my sister told me that I was using my identity as an outsider as a crutch. This revelation was a shock and I didn’t want to believe her. But she was right. The coping mechanism I had learned as a kid was hurting me as an adult. I didn’t need to be the oddball. I didn’t need to be so unique.
So I went through a phase of wearing pearl earrings and neutral colors. That wasn’t me either. The point wasn’t to blend in but rather to stop making myself stand out.
The truth is, I can be a bit of a chameleon. I know a little about a lot of things, enough to hold conversations with a diverse population. And it’s been said that Pisces always have a large closet. That’s me. Clothes for every occasion and every aspect of my personality.
I’m not a people pleaser and I don’t need people to like me, but I have always wanted others to feel at ease. So I would adapt myself. But that, in itself, was damaging. I lost my boundaries.
I’ve finally learned that I don’t need to make myself small. For some folks, I’m just too much. Too enthusiastic, too idealistic, too outspoken, too smart, too emotional. They want me to tone it down. Decades of professional evaluations where I was praised for my work but then told I needed to not be so …. so. . . me. I’m done with that. I’m done with others projecting their insecurities and complexes onto me.
I like who I am. And I am not everyone’s cup of tea. That’s okay. My dog likes me. I’m no longer a replica of my father, but I’m still unique. And in other ways, quite boring.
Today I am clear that the people with whom I belong are the ones that accept me as I am.
But the first long step to understanding this had to come from within. I had to discern my identity versus who I wanted to be or who others expected me to be. I had to separate my past and reevaluate my origin story and release my fabrications of what that story meant and what I expected from my family. I had to clarify what I wanted from relationships: romantic, friends, and colleagues. I had to create boundaries of acceptable behavior in order for me to stop changing colors and adapting to others.
And now I’m never quite sure if I belong anywhere. Except that I have family. Several families. And friends who love me.
Robert Frost wrote, “Home is where you go and they have to take you in.” Ultimately, this is where I belong: with those who will always take me in because they love me, because in one way or another, we are family.
My Community Response family (serving people with HIV) in 1993, with my siblings in 1986, and with my father in 1983 (on Halloween).