Happiness is Relative


There’s another conversation that’s been playing on my mind lately. A colleague was describing how they’d moved from Australia to New Zealand, and there were a lot of things that they didn’t like about the move, but they still felt they’d made the right decision because their eldest daughter was getting badly bullied at high school and they’d had to make the change on her behalf…

It struck me as so alien: that level of concern and protectiveness over their kid’s future. I remember begging my parents to move to another town when I was at high school. High school was hell on earth for me. I went from being a high-achieving, gifted-program 10-year-old, to an unqualified drop out by 16. More than two decades after escaping, I still refuse to ever go back to the city where I spent my teenage years. Just getting near to it gives me panic attacks.

I understand that there were lots of reasons why my parents refused my request – almost all of which weren’t an indifference about my future. Nobody likes a whiny teenage girl. My father was moving forward in his career. They had debts to pay. My brother was doing well at his school, and went on to a good career himself. I was the one who was failing and not communicating well. And I needed to take responsibility for myself and learn how to better negotiate the trials or inter-personal relationships… But I also think that those are the rationales of someone who has never been bullied. I was a kid. I had no skills to really articulate or prevent what was happening to me – as with yesterday’s blog, those skills didn’t come until I was old enough to stop giving a shit. And putting the onus on the victim to fix the situation is in the same family as blaming them for their predicament. Bullies don’t need a reason to bully. Proximity will do.

There is clearly a massive generational difference in parenting nowadays. The fact is, my colleague only mentioned their daughter’s troubles in passing, as if removing your child from bullying (and moving to a whole different country to do so) was such a natural thing to do. It doesn’t make my parents bad, but their choices were clearly different – and my life was different as a consequence.

I don’t know what would have happened if they’d heeded my request and moved away. Maybe the whole cycle would have repeated itself somewhere else. But I think at least I would have felt like someone was listening to me and prioritising my needs – I would have felt like I had value, which was something the bullies made a point of taking from me and something that remained sorely lacking in my life… well into my 30s really. It wasn’t until I spent a lot of money on counselling that I really began to unravel why I felt like I was such a piece of shit. It changed a great many of the choices I made in life – and I know that because liking myself has seen me make much better choices. If we’d moved, I probably would have spent a lot less money on counselling in any case.

My father’s sister and brother-in-law were university professors. Their kids were about the same age as my brother and me. I remember family get-togethers where my parents and my aunt and uncle just seemed to compare notes on their children’s respective achievements in school. Awards, publications (yes, I was actually a published poet when I was 9), school and sport honours. It was clear that there was a tacit competition in who could have the most gifted child. We were like race horses that they were training up for the Great Retirement Fund Derby. My brother and cousin now work very high-flying careers in IT – they earn very well. My other cousin (the one closer to my age) is a medical doctor and now a university lecturer herself… After I quit high school, I stopped being mentioned in those conversations. I noticed. I guess there wasn’t going to be much that my parents could bring to the table that they could be proud of. “Kiki got out of bed and made herself pasta today! Then she went back to bed, but she only cried for 40 mins. We’re seeing really good progress.” It did add to my sense of failure, but they also had no way to get their heads around what I needed (or even that I needed anything). Depression does look a lot like laziness.

A few years back, my cousin (the doctor) found herself in an abusive relationship with a Police officer. Even after she escaped, he used the Police databases to stalk her. Just like my troubles, it was mentioned only very briefly between my parents and their siblings, and then not talked about again. I’ve never spoken to her about it – how does one even start that conversation? – but it made me realise that we’re really not that different, me and her. We both let dicks like that into our lives. Anyone can find themselves in an abusive relationship, but so many of us stall in changing the one bit we control (proximity) on account of the fact that we think we deserve to be there. Somewhere in her childhood, I think she noticed those conversations too. I think she felt every damn losing game like it diminished her existence. And then he came along… She’s never managed to build a good, long term relationship since then. Two years ago, she used some of her decent salary to get IVF and have a baby. Solo. I don’t know if she looks at her other cousins (like me) and feels the same pang of jealousy and childhood self-flagellation that I do – maybe that’s just my own wishful desire for community – but it helped me understand that success in life is relative.

And if we had moved, and my life had been lived differently, I wouldn’t have what I have now. I’m happy now. That’s not really because of the crap that dogged my adolescence, but chance is a wondrous thing.

Am I grateful that I was stuck at that school?…

Honestly? No… But I am grateful for some of the people who came into my life after that. I’m grateful that I’ve learned to accept and forgive. I’m grateful that I’ve learned to sometimes not be scared – even though that meant cutting a lot of bad influences out of my life. It was a long, hard journey to get there. And I don’t know that I would have got there if I hadn’t been faced with the (quite literal) choice of death or change.

Still not going back to that city though. Nothing good ever came from that place.


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