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What Makes the Heart Grow

When I was eighteen, days seemed to be measured in the number of conflicts with my parents, primarily my mother. Some days were full of them, but time saw them scatter and arguments were few and further between. During these days, I was discovering who I wanted to be as an adult. My friend group primarily consisted of people I met at work. This meant there was a variety of people unlike myself with whom I was spending my time. My parents found some of these people to be good, decent folks. However, some of them were people who spent a good deal of time smoking weed and listening to Lil Peep. I had never smoked anything in my life, and I was an avid listener of instrumental movie soundtracks and singers who used the ukulele a lot. Despite our differences, these were the people I chose to hang around at that age. And even though my parents may not have approved of my friends' choices, they still let them spend time at my house.  

One evening, three of my friends from work and I decided to have a game night in my home. This was the first time they'd come over, so naturally, I wanted to be a good host. I wanted them to like me. I needed this night to be enjoyable and lively. I put on my best face and tried to be a source of jokes and joviality. I made sure to warn them not to bring up references to The Office in front of my parents, as they still didn't know I watched this show; some of the crude jokes would have had it deemed inappropriate viewing material. Had they found out it was my favorite show via awkward interaction around the game table, a much longer conversation would have been had later. So, there we were, sitting around the table playing rounds of Uno Dare and some other games that I can't recall the names of. I'd like to think we had a decent time of it. After the games were over, we hung out in the living room for a little while, and eventually, we moved outside. We thought it would be cool to take some pictures of ourselves in different poses. We weren't dressed up nicely or anything, but we didn't care. We made sure the pictures turned out well and declared it was getting late, and they should probably start heading home. After my friends had taken their leave, I went up to my room and worked on some laundry. I felt good about my hosting skills and had the impression that everyone had a good time. While I sat in this contentedness, a dark cloud was heading my way and soon knocking on my door. I opened it, and the lightning struck:  

"Ella, I noticed you were acting differently with your friends tonight than you do when it's just us. Why is that?" My mother asked.  

Well, for one thing, I was really crossing my fingers they wouldn’t mention The Office. But it’s not like I was trying to be different. "I'm not sure, I guess I was just nervous since they'd never been over before and I wanted everyone to have a good time," I explained.   

"What, you don't think they can have a good time when you're just being yourself?"  

Really? "I wasn't purposely being different, it's just what happens when you have people over. You act differently. Besides, I have a lot of social anxiety, but I was trying my best."  

"Hmm. I see. That makes sense. Well, all right."  

She exited my room and I believed the storm had passed. I thought I was in the clear. But no, this was not over yet. My part of it was, but the conversation would continue in my parents' bedroom later on. Since my room was down the hall from theirs, it was very easy to overhear their voices. Whether it was right to listen, I cannot say. Nevertheless, I did hear what they were saying, and I cannot forget.   

"Did you talk to Ella?" My dad questioned.   

"Yes, we had a good conversation. She explained why she believed she was behaving differently," my mother responded.  

"Well? What did she say?"  

At this point, I believed the conversation was going in a positive direction. I was in for a shock.  

"She told me she has social anxiety." The words were chewed up and spit out of her mouth, the intonation of the syllables twisted like a cart going up and over the peak of a rollercoaster into a grizzly demise at the bottom. It was a betrayal of the deepest kind. I shared a weakness, something I rarely disclosed in my household. Although I had not always been honest with my parents during my tumultuous teenage years, this was an instance where I was trying to be. I wanted to be open about one thing that made friendship with these people a little bit difficult, something that explained a vital part of who I was. Instead of love, understanding, and support, I was met with disbelief, misunderstanding, and disgust. And, although my father was not the one whom I’d had the conversation with originally, and he was not the one who made the comment about my anxiety, he did not defend me either. There was no negative reaction, no “Hey, it seems like she’s been going through a lot lately. Let’s cut her some slack.” No one said anything on my behalf. I could understand if they didn’t personally empathize with my struggles with depression, since not everyone goes through that experience. But social anxiety is something that almost every person experiences to a certain degree. It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to put oneself in another’s shoes and determine what they might be feeling. No, a lapse of understanding of this kind was a simple lack of effort. They did not care to know or consider what I was feeling. And this pierced me to the deepest part of my heart. I lay on the floor sobbing for what felt like a very long time. I could not breathe, I could not move, and I could not stop the tears from streaming down my face. I felt completely and utterly alone. If my parents, who’d known me my whole life, would not understand me, then who would?  

This experience shook my trust in my parents for some time. I'm not going to pretend that it all got better right away. I remember feeling sick at breakfast the next morning. The sound of their voices calling me to eat floated up the stairs, and I breathed in the effects of the betrayal once more, a second wave hitting my system. I went to the bathroom and sat on the toilet for a long time, struggling to catch a proper breath. When I felt ready to face the invisible, unacknowledged conflict of the previous night now seated in the dining room, I left the bathroom and headed downstairs. From that time, I was quieter with them and disclosed less of my feelings. But, even though it didn’t feel like it ever would at the time, it did get better. As time passed by and allowed me to heal, the wound grew a scab and eventually turned into a faint mark. When I turned nineteen, I moved to Indiana while they were still living in Wisconsin. We lived in different states for almost two years. It turns out the saying, "absence makes the heart grow fonder" is very true. I started to call them once in a while, then once every week, then whenever I had the chance.  

Over those two years, I learned to appreciate my parents more than I ever had before. When I was sad or stressed, my parents became my lifeline. In one of the darkest times of my life, I called my mother three or more times a day. I had started a job that I ended up hating and was causing such emotional distress that I would have near-panic attacks and dreaded going to work every single day. I felt trapped while balancing school, work, and living without my family. One evening, I decided to get Culver's for dinner, so I sat in my parked car eating my salad. I desperately wanted to talk to my mom, so I picked up my phone and called her.   

"Hey Mom, I'm just dealing with a lot right now. I don't know how I can keep pushing through all the things I'm feeling every day."  

She told me exactly what I needed to hear. She said it wasn't my fault I was in this situation, and the things I was feeling were perfectly normal. I wasn't doing anything wrong. Having anxiety is not wrong. She felt it too. Anxiety and depression are effects of this broken world. If this job was causing me this much stress, maybe it was time to leave.   

That was it! That was the key! There was nothing wrong with me. My anxiety was not my fault. She felt it too. Knowing this shifted something in my brain. It was like going back and flipping a reverse button on the things she'd said before. She acknowledged my struggle; my pain was real. Not only that, but she empathized. She knew what it was like to feel the pressing weight of fear. The looming, hovering feeling that something was terribly wrong and that it always would be. But, as long as I knew I wasn't alone, I would be okay. If she knew how it felt and I could trust her as a confidant, I would make it. The past didn't matter anymore. All I cared about was that I was seen and understood. Yes, things are different now. We have all grown from our past mindsets.   

Because most of our contact came through talking over the phone, our relationship was rebuilt through healthy communication. They gave me advice about things I was facing, and I gave them advice on family issues I had become a third party to. Living apart worked best for everyone, I think. But now, we are living together again, and we have developed a very positive relationship. Plus, I am still an avid listener of movie soundtracks and ukulele music, and I still have never smoked anything.  


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