It’s Emma here, popping on this Other’s Day to talk for the first time in public about my own estrangement. I know weird, right? Weird I never mentioned it until now. Well, if you’d asked me a year ago, I would’ve told you that I had no experience of estrangement at all. I knew some about it from my chats with Robyn, of course, but until very recently, I’d have said that my experiences of loss largely rested on my Mum dying. Not so. Turns out that my brain – master avoider that it is – has been hiding from me all this time that I am also technically estranged from her husband – my step-Dad. I’m not going to go into the details of why I’m estranged from him, but suffice it to say that I have seen and heard enough to know that he doesn’t get a place in my life anymore.
Instead, I want to talk about being in the middle of an estrangement. About the weirdnesses and madnesses of this wheelie bin of emotions as it trundles down the cobbled stone hillock in my mind, frequently teetering on one wheel and threatening to smash through a nearby shop window.
I knew, of course, that I didn’t speak to him anymore, and knew there was incalculable hurt in my heart from him, but I’d never put a word over that to explain it. Estrangement. Seems so formal. And all I ever really felt about it was that I’d walked away from a once-treasured relationship, with just a bag of guilt and confusion to show for it. I guess a professional person would call that denial. It’s been almost ten years since my Mum died, and I’ve been in denial about this since then.
So it feels new to me, this estrangement, but now I’m sitting in it, it’s all starting to make sense. Because as much as I loved this man like a second Father for most of my life, there was sometimes a strangeness to it – a background something that I couldn’t quite make out through the fog of the family. I’d say to my therapist that there was something I didn’t understand there – some weirdness my mind wouldn’t fix on, and it made everything feel messy and ungrounded and like I couldn’t trust myself. And if you’re a people-pleaser like me, teetering on the brink of an estrangement, you might recognise that feeling. The slip and confusion of wanting distance but not being able to voice why. The confusion of knowing you have fear in your life, even as you see other people loving the person you’re feeling off about. The unwillingness to look at the thing that might cause you to sever a relationship forever. I’ve not seen my Step-Dad for almost 10 years, and it took me until this year to be able to look at the reason I’ve cut off contact and call it what it was. And if that’s you – if you’re living in that messy and weird stage too – I just want to say that it’s ok to work through everything at your own speed. It’s ok to have no contact and not really know why. Sometimes, you need that distance for the fog to clear.
In those 10 years I’ve gone around the houses trying to make sense of it, performed mental somersaults to get around the facts and done myself quite a lot of harm in the process. I’ve found reasons to believe it wasn’t permanent; would tell myself I’d got it all wrong, that there are two sides to every story, that I might be making him really sad, or he might be lonely, or maybe he’s getting really angry and is gonna come for me. I’ve cultivated relationships that matched the emotional state of the relationship I had with him. I’ve told myself I’m bad for not seeing him. That this state of no-contact is just me being a dick. I’ve distracted myself with TV, food, no-food, hating myself, drinking too much, shopping too much, anxiety-anxiety-anxiety. And then one day in the bath – where I do all my best thinking – I had a slow-moving twinkle of a notion that said, ‘Hold on a minute – am I estranged..?’.
From that dull little twinkle – the idea equivalent of a fairy light from 1986 – I’ve been softly-softly feeling my way through this new space that I inhabit as an estranged person. Not somebody with a guilty abandonment in my past, but somebody who made a decision for my own good and is sticking to it. Not a silly little girl who shirked responsibility, but a stronger woman who choose a better life. There’s a peculiar discomfort about a parent being gone-but-not. Especially if you’ve been any kind of afraid around that person. It feels like they’re always out there, looming and lurking in imagined dark corners. And if you’re telling yourself that one day they might be back, that’s a fear you carry with you. It’s one I’m trying to let go of, and it is a rollercoaster. For the first time I’m feeling emotions about this man that I thought I wasn’t allowed to – anger, rebellion, regret. Getting comfortable with them. Rolling them around in my hand until their sharp surfaces are smooth. And it’s really hard work. If all your learnings about acceptable emotions come from your parents, trying to bid them adieu is a minefield of child-like learning. You’re almost standing up to that person every day, sticking your Gandalf staff into the ground, and saying, ‘Not today, thank you’, and saying goodbye to the idea that you have to be compliant in this relationship. Because relationships continue once the person’s gone – you just don’t have to rely on them to make a change.
Estrangement to me isn’t a decision so much as it’s a series of decisions and moments that you have with yourself. A whole lot of unpacking and re-learning and understanding. It isn’t a clean break – it’s the emotional equivalent of eating spaghetti with no cutlery. Hard, messy and will probably ruin your favourite shirt. In this instance, your favourite shirt is a metaphor for your previous familial stability. But it’s ok, once you’ve chucked it out you’ll realise it was made of highly flammable fabric and was, in fact an ugly shell suit. Does this still make sense? I’m not sure it does. But all I want to say, from the midst of my own estrangement, is that if you’re in the middle of taking off your own family shell suit and it feels a bit weird and naked and guilty and angry and fearful – that’s ok. Change is hard, especially when it involves one of the base structures of your life. You just gotta know that you’re doing the thing that you need to be doing, and sometimes that very act is a moment of rebellion and heroism for yourself. It’ll be messy, it’ll be uncomfortable and you might not quite know whether you’re doing it right, but if you’re working your way through an estrangement right now, you’re doing it. You’re taking ownership, you’re standing firm for what you need, and that is incredible.
I think from the outside estrangement can look so very independent and clear-minded and purposeful and strong, when from the inside it’s so frequently emotional jelly. So, as I continue to work through my own situation this Other’s Day, I hope that you can find some relief in yours. I hope you can take strength from the path trodden behind you, and feel undaunted by the one stretching out ahead. And, whatever you’re feeling, to know that you are very much not alone.
2 thoughts on “OTHER’S DAY: ON THE MESS OF ESTRANGEMENT”
It’s very brave of you to talk about your own estrangement and your feelings around it. As I read your post, I realised I have been estranged from one side of my family for about 30 years. There are many reasons for this, but it is only reading this post that I am able to give it a name. I am estranged. Consciously estranged. Wilfully estranged. Sometimes guiltily estranged and wondering whether I still need to be.
There are resentments that I should long ago have been able to forgive, but in my life there is no longer room for the word should. I have consciously rebuffed attempts to be in touch with me, but that was the right choice at the time.
Growing up in a complicated family, I have chosen my own. The people I am related to who I spend time with are those that I choose to spend time with! And the amazing friends I have are the family I have chosen.
I am so glad you have published your book and are working through your stuff. Are you a writer by profession? If not, you should be. You are very eloquent.
I hope today has been a positive one for you!
Thanks so much for this very thoughtful comment, Rachel. It means everything to know that something I wrote might have had even a small hand in helping with your journey. I am indeed a writer by trade, though I confess that doesn’t always make getting words out much easier. Here’s to bidding the ‘shoulds’ adieu, and to finding our way through the next bits however we need to. Xxx