Think as far back as you can, to your first childhood memory. What would that child have grown up to be if they never experienced fear, shame, or self-doubt? Would you still be you, or do you sometimes wonder what happened to that kid?
I’ve been asking myself these questions lately. Three canceled flights have meant I’ve spent over two months at my parents’ house. One evening last week, I helped my Mum organize the photo albums in chronological order. It was that or yet another 3-hour episode of Spanish Masterchef. I didn’t have the patience for the latter so settled for the former. I reached for the 1993 volume.It was nostalgic, heart-warming, and hilarious. But there was an album I briefly opened, cringed, and gave to my Mum. I didn’t want to look at any photos of myself between 2005 and 2010. I would cover anything before the age of twelve and past about seventeen, at a push. I was not about to relive my teenage years — just gross. I was ugly, I was awkward, I was shy, and I didn’t care to relive it. My mum almost cried.
A few nights later, I realized those albums were exactly what I needed to see.
Our eyes were fixed to the screen as Pearl concluded the series with a poem. We were watching the final episode of Little Fires Everywhere, based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel. I felt that melancholy feeling that surfaces when it’s time to put the Christmas tree back in the attic.
In my needy nature, I had become emotionally attached. Both to the characters and to the thought-provoking turn of events that sparked daily debates in our house. True to form, the final episode left me with a ream of unanswered questions. Not about the series. But about myself.
The poem posed this question:
“Was I the bird, or was I the cage?”
I knew exactly what she was talking about.
I instantly pictured twelve-year-old me. My family had just moved back from a small town in Belgium. I had just completed the final year of primary school, but I jumped straight to the second year of high school on our return to the UK. The school-years are different.
My siblings and I were by now pretty accustomed to moving schools and countries, but this was the biggest change I had ever faced.Primary school had been easy. I was always welcomed by a group of kids who wanted to befriend the newbie. But high-school was different. It was up to me to prove I was worthy.
I still felt like a child. I was playing catch in the playground a couple of months ago, and now all the girls in my class wore make-up and shaved their legs. For the first time, I stood out for all the wrong reasons.
We were standing in line one morning, waiting to go into class, when one boy shouted “Hey Gummy Bear”. He was talking to me. When I laugh or smile (which is often), my gums are more visible than they are in most people. His comment sparked a chain reaction that made all my classmates howl with laughter. I was mortified.
For that entire year, and into the next, I barely spoke to anyone in the class. I didn’t want to open my mouth under any circumstances. Of course, this only made things worse. Kids asked whether I “had anything to say”, only to laugh because obviously, I never had anything to say.
Eventually, I made a good group of friends who gave me respite. But it wasn’t without sacrifice. As a form of self-protection, I rejected anything and everything that was associated with me. I was embarrassed to be myself and ashamed that I was so inferior.
The girl I used to be was a liability in this new environment. So I cut all ties with her. For years I did everything I could to hide her away.
I grew to hate my body, my voice, my clothes, even my family. I was embarrassed to be seen with them. Not because they were inherently embarrassing, but because they were a part of me. And anything or anyone associated with me was bad and shameful.
I wore the clothes I was supposed to wear, did my make-up the way everyone else did, ate what girls were supposed to eat, and pretended to have PMS because sports class was for losers.I was so desperate to end my suffering that I rejected myself almost entirely, to shape a new me. One that would fit in. I grew to hate the old me, but I couldn’t recognize the new me either. Others seemed to accept her, but I knew she was a lie.
That year I totally lost who I was, and I’m not sure to this day whether or when I truly began to be me again.
So, was I the bird or the cage?
I realized that I’ve carried a lot of this shame for years. I’m a grown-ass woman and I often still assume that other people’s opinions are more valid than mine, or that “I could never do that”. I am my own cage.
I don’t live in a high-school microcosm anymore. Sure, I’m influenced by social norms and standards, but they don’t confine my thoughts and actions to the extent I limit myself. The door is open, and I’m still choosing to sit in the cage.
I hit a milestone that night. I couldn’t shake the guilt I felt. The ridiculous paradox that I was upholding. I succumbed to my nervous energy and got out of bed. I went downstairs and took out the old photo albums.
Unsurprisingly, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, I found very few photos of myself. They were hidden away in the albums on the back row of the cupboard.
This time, I held up one particular photo and cried. My Dad had taken it. My mouth was attempting to smile, but my eyes looked sad and a little scared. I burst into tears and found an empty photo frame.
I now keep this photo on my desk. It reminds me every day how resilient, brave, patient, thoughtful, hard-working, and strong that girl is. Thanks to her, I am who I am today. And I will never put her away again.
Your insecurity, your fear, and your self-doubt is self-imposed.
You might not be proud of all the things you’ve said, felt, or done in your life. But holding on to shame will only hold you back. It’s important to learn to love and own your past, so you can move on with your future.
So if all you see is a cage, turn around. The door is open. You can fly out.