I noticed you guys were promoting awareness of unhealthy relationships. When I came to William and Mary, I didn’t realize that my relationship with my parents was unhealthy. But because of the distance that college brings, I realized there were some issues that needed to be addressed. I figured this would be a good opportunity to explore that a bit because I don’t really talk about it a lot. From social media you’d never be able to tell that the relationship that I have with them is really toxic. I guess I just wanted to put it out there to other people who might be experiencing similarly unhealthy relationships that might be masked by social media or by the general happy facade of William and Mary.
Yeah, that’s really easy to do.
It’s really easy to fall into that kind of trap, thinking everyone around me is happy, everyone around me has healthy relationships with their family. When in reality, of course that’s not the case. That’s just how it seems from the outside. So I thought that by stepping up, even if anonymously, I could say to those individuals “You’re not a silent voice, you’re not a silent minority.” In fact, the majority of people I know at this college are actively working on their relationships with their parents that are not healthy and need to be “fixed”, for lack of a better word. That’s why I approached you.
Yeah, of course! I really appreciate you reaching out. So, how long has this kind of toxic relationship been going on?
I guess I should define toxic because unhealthy relationships take many forms. As an only child, you don’t always realize the amount of pressure that’s put on you by your parents even if they love you, even if it comes from a place of the best intent. The expectations that are mounted on you are also coupled with, “But honey, we love you regardless of who you are or what you do.” It’s this false unconditional love that’s presented to you from childhood. So that’s something I’ve been working to wrap my head around. They say, “We love you, but also make sure you get A’s. We love you, but also make sure that you’re able to keep up with your extracurriculars. And remember we love you regardless!” It’s this weird coupling of what’s supposed to be unconditional and an underlying layer of familial pressure and expectation. I feel like there are a lot of people who haven’t realized this is unhealthy because there’s a baseline expectation that their families love them and are acting out of the purest intent. You have to understand where the line is drawn between love and how reasonable your family’s expectations from you are. I guess that’s what I mean by toxic. It’s been going on through my whole life, but I didn’t recognize it until I was in my first semester of college. That’s when I finally took a step back to evaluate, and realized, “Woah. I have a checklist of expectations that I require myself to complete. Where did this checklist come from?” It wasn’t really until this past year that I realized that my family’s the root of this. The reason why I wanted this to be anonymous is because I don’t think I have the guts to have had a proper conversation with them and say, “Hey, we need to talk about our relationship.” The first step has been acknowledging it myself and realizing there’s something fucked up about the way I interact with my parents. They also have a lot of intermarital issues that have definitely complicated things and added another layer of pressure. It’s a really sophisticated system that developed between us over the years, and I would say it’s definitely been there since the beginning. It’s just an unfortunate situation. I know it’s weird to say this, but I’m proud of myself for recognizing that something needs to change because that’s the first step to addressing the issue.
Was there a specific moment that you realized you had this unhealthy relationship with your parents?
A lot of things about my sophomore year were pretty terrible, but throughout that, I realized that this was one of the main stressors.
So besides putting a lot of pressure on yourself, it also had led to you not doing as well as you would like to?
One-hundred percent. Reflection in grades, reflection in social relationships with people my own age, people older than me. I mean, the anxiety-ridden thoughts that have been ingrained in you from such a young age have an impact on almost every aspect of your life. It’s maddening. It makes you feel like you have no control over your life, which is something that I’m trying to recognize and trying to overcome somehow. But it’s crazy how pervasive those thoughts are. It’s a horrible thing to think that in a space like your college campus where you’re supposed to have autonomy over your things, over your daily activities, over your future, there’s a fundamental puzzle piece that’s just missing and doesn’t allow you to fully have control over what you want to do or what you should be doing. There’s always someone in the back of your head telling you what they want, what they think you should be doing. It’s pretty insane how this has developed over the course of my life. Sustaining two unhealthy relationships has just led to so many unimaginable consequences. Does that answer your question?
Yeah! I also think that the rambling part of thought processes is important to help you figure out where your thoughts are going.
Yeah! Exactly, exactly, and the fact that I’m allowing myself to ramble about this.
Are there any particular red flags in your relationship with your parents that you could point out as the part that is unhealthy?
I think the whole concept of unconditional love is so important for parenting in general. Like, the doses of guilt that are washed over me along with the seeming compassion leads to constant contradictory emotions. Even now as I’m talking about this, half of me wants to defend them because they’re just trying to do their best. It’s just that their best is not great. I’ve become pretty cynical about parenting, to the point where I want to say if you not sure you can handle being a parent, don’t do it because you shouldn’t shove your anxiety on someone else. Much less, a child. Much less, your own child. So I think that’s the biggest red flag for me. First, the inability for them to communicate with each other and with me. Second, their inability to sort out their own feelings and then communicate those emotions with me. They should want me to be really happy and confident in myself and my abilities as they are. They should be confident in my ability to try my hardest to succeed because I’m going to try my hardest. They can’t be like, “We’re proud of you and what you’re trying to achieve, but couldn’t you try a little harder?” I think that’s most evident through my academics.
Do they have a lot of expectations for your academics?
A lot of it is societal stuff that’s been internalized since before day one, but there is definitely a huge part of the pressure that’s intrinsic to their person. I share a lot of those values with them and definitely place a lot of importance on academics. But there’s comes a point, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot, when no matter how many values you have in common with someone, it ultimately comes down to how you express those values. My parents just express their values in a totally different way than I would want to. It’s been hard to balance seeing how they choose to express their values and the way I feel I should be treated. A lot of it is internalized conflict on their part too. I feel like it’s really easy to forget that parents are also humans, that they are also figuring out what they want to do and how they want to live their lives. This has become more and more apparent to me after their separation. I’ve started recognizing that they’re also human, but still wondered why can’t they treat me a little better. I don’t know, man. And that’s not to say they’re not full of love, it’s just the way the choose to express their love is different from what I would want as their child.
How long have they been separated?
A few months ago, so it’s really new, and it’s taken a toll on everyone. It’s brought a lot of change, and my family’s not good at change. That’s been interesting to grapple with, but it’s also opened up a lot of areas for communication between me and my mom. My dad and I still have a lot of things to work through, a lot of conversations that are probably going to be left unsaid for the rest of our lives because he’s not the kind of person to talk about things. I’m trying to accept that. I’ve started to recognize the way they’ve lived their lives is not the way I want to live mine. I don’t know if I want kids right now, but if I have kids, I know I’m not going to do the same things that they’re doing. Not to say that all of the things they’ve done are bad. As with any relationship there are good and bad aspects. It’s just like, I’ve recognized all the good and bad stuff about our relationship, and now where do I go? How do I choose to live my own life? How do I choose to express the values that I feel are important to express? How will I move forward, especially looking forward to graduation and afterwards? William and Mary is a great haven, but the real world’s out there. I can’t escape it, so how am I going to deal with all of this in not such a safe space?
That’s awesome that you feel that William and Mary is a safe space.
It wasn’t always. It was not. I think I’ve only come to make a space for myself this this year. Like a lot of people, I feel like I tricked myself into thinking this is home, but this was not home for me for a good year and a half, two years.
How did you figure out how to make it more of a home for you?
Well, I think part of it was that my expectations of the College and the college experience itself were pretty minimal. I was arbitrarily like, “College is cool! We’re going to make it work somehow!” Then college turned into a whole different ball game than I was expecting, and living in Williamsburg was in itself another whole ball game than I thought it would be or wanted it to be. Once I accepted what William and Mary is, I became a lot more comfortable. I also just found people that were fundamentally good people. It took me a while to find them. Now that I have, I’m like, “Fuck! I’m leaving! I’m gonna be gone in a couple years, and then what?” I just came back to William and Mary after being away for a while, and I’m so grateful to have a place like this to return to. More importantly people to return to who I know are my safety net. They’ve become the family away from home that I never really thought I needed or could have.
Have you been able to talk to your friends here about your family?
Yeah, one of my friends from freshman year has been with me from as close to day one as you can get. She is just so compassionate and empathetic and everything I thought in high school I could never have. Of course, I’ve met other friends over the past year who have been so, so supportive. They’ve been so understanding, even if they don’t get what it’s like to go home and not feel like it’s home, they are so, so compassionate, and I couldn’t ask for another group of people who would be better to be with, and that’s awesome.
Is there any other piece of your story that we didn’t touch on that you think would be important for the William and Mary community and anyone else who reads your story to know?
I guess there are a couple things. The first is that people may have a fixed perception of what someone’s life is from their online presence, but it’s so fake. I just want that recognition to be reaffirmed. Social media is fake. It’s ironic because this is going to be published on social media, but it angers me how horrible those misperceptions are. The second thing would be if you are experiencing, or you’re starting to become more observant of the symptoms of unhealthy relationships with your parents, significant others, friends, just don’t be afraid to call it out, even if it’s just to yourself. Say, “Hey, I recognize a red flag. I recognize something that’s not right. Maybe I won’t do anything about it today, but the fact that I’ve even acknowledged it means that I have the power to do something about it in the future if I want to. I think that’s where I’m at right now, and I feel like it’s a very important limbo to be in. I think that’s why I wanted to talk to you today.
I think it’s a really important thing to do. If you could give one piece of advice to the William and Mary community, what would you tell them?
Don’t be afraid to be alone.
In what way?
It might be a lot of different things, it might mean standing out from the crowd, or sitting by yourself for a meal. [Being alone] is not a bad thing. I eat by myself all the time and it makes me very happy. Don’t be afraid to have your own opinion, your own voice, to spend a Friday night at home, alone, doing nothing. Don’t be afraid to revel in solitude because at the end of the day you are the only person you have. I know that sounds really cynical and terrible, but at the end of the day you’re the only person you can really count on – and I think this is the best thing possible. What more do you have except yourself? And your ability to relate with others, your ability to make a difference, or your ability to enjoy your day. Ultimately, it’s up to you, and it’s up to your attitude, to make the best of whatever situation you’re handed. Why should you be afraid of being alone? That’s honestly one of the most empowering things. Obviously there’s strength in numbers, and all those other cliches, but why would you not want to experience yourself for who you are? I feel like that’s something specific to this campus, and college life in general. There is this constant need to be with people and make friends. There’s that need to have every hour of the day blocked out to spend with people, and I’m like, “Take a step back, be alone for a little bit!” It makes the time you spend with other people so much more meaningful.
Do you feel like you’re in a healing process for yourself right now?
Yeah, I mean, I’ve been going to therapy for two years to talk about a lot of the things that happened in my childhood that kind of led up to – I don’t know, it’s weird to call it trauma. I feel like I’m being more vague in this interview than I might have intended. My therapist uses the concept of tiny “t” trauma, not capitalized Trauma, but tiny trauma. So for me to process the my own experiences that I’ve been through, I guess yeah, you could call it a healing process. Also I’ve also been working on being patient and accepting myself, which is a terrible cliche but necessary. But I’ve been trying to accept the fact that the process of healing is a struggle, and some days will be easier than others. Some days, depression won’t let me get out of bed. Some days anxiety will fuck up a test, but ultimately those things aren’t who I am and aren’t who I want to be. But yeah, definitely a healing process.