I had this bad habit as a kid. Whenever we had house guests, I’d let them in, serve them tea, then disappear with a book. When my mum mentioned how rude it was to leave visitors unattended, I adjusted my habit slightly by putting on the TV for the guest and proceeding to read my book in a quiet corner, well within the visitor’s eye-line. I didn’t realise how unwanted my habit made a person feel until a good friend did the same to me.
As an adult, I’ve turned hosting into an art. I will welcome my guests, sit with them, feed them, entertain them, and as they leave, tell them they’re welcome back any time. Then I get into my house, lock the door, draw the curtains, turn off the lights, and if anybody knocks, I pretend I’m not home. This is because with very few exceptions, I don’t enjoy having people at my house. Actually, I don’t enjoy people, period.
After a typical visit from a house guest, I sink back into default mode. I shut the door, switch off my smile, and crawl back to my covers and my books. My baby girl is used to this, because apart from the time we spend watching Stargate, Bones, or Winx marathons, she chills on the sofa and I reside on the bed. The princess and I are really close, and we have a lot in common. But our tastes in TV are vastly divergent. Case in point, I like CSI and she likes iCarly.
Sometimes, she asks me to sit and watch some idiot show with her, and sometimes I agree, with a specific time limit. For instance, I agree to watch five episodes of Diego and Dora, then she allows me to retreat. After I’ve done my penance, I leave her working beads and watching Nickelodeon while I curl up a few feet away with my blanket, my Kindle, and a closed bedroom door between us.
I don’t always agree to sit with her. Sometimes I’m too exhausted for any company, even hers. Sometimes I come home from work, give her a brief hug and a cuddle, and retreat to the silence of my book. Sometimes I refuse to watch the same episode of BTR for the 69th time. As I stand to leave, she pouts and changes the channel to FX, just so I’ll stay with her.
In the past few weeks I’ve been described as selfish by two people who know me really well. They said I only care about myself and never consider other people’s emotions. I was genuinely puzzled and hurt, because I consider myself the most giving person that I know. I routinely allow myself to be a doormat and spare other people’s feelings.
But when I really think about it, I’m not selfish. I’m self-absorbed, which is a million times worse. I start each morning spending quality time with my baby as we prepare, have breakfast, and walk to school. Highlight of my workday. Then I get into a matatu and bury myself in my phone or Kindle, not even acknowledging the person next to me.
I get to the office, plug in my earphones, and proceed to shut out the world till home time. At night, I walk into the house to find my baby asleep, but the few times when she’s awake, I give her a hug, briefly ask about her day, talk to the mboch about meal planning, then retreat into bed and shut the world out with music, words, or sleep. On nights like that, I don’t let anyone in, not even my precious baby girl.
Recently, I discovered WhatsApp, so sometimes I bury myself in that, and I didn’t realise it was an issue until the princess declared set periods of time when I am not allowed to touch my phone, no matter how loudly it pings or vibrates. At such times, I must give undivided attention to her and/or Nickelodeon, depending on her mood at the time.
Most people describe me as warm, friendly, and immensely bubbly. So they get shocked when I say I don’t like people, or that I’ve been depressed to the point of attempted suicide. On the day of my last suicide attempt, my ex found a goodbye letter in his inbox. He immediately called my brother to warn him, but my brother waved him off, because I had visited said brother, giggled and joked for half an hour, and then left munching an apple after saying my final goodbye.
When I explain this to people, they offer me conventional wisdom. They say that since I’m happy when I’m with people and depressed when I’m alone, I simply need to get out of my head and be with people more. But these people don’t know how exhausted I get playing the ‘happy girl’ role. They don’t know that after the delicious party I hosted, I needed to crawl into bed and sleep for a few hours to recover my energy. They don’t know that after welcoming the new neighbour, I needed to meditate just so my spirit returned to ‘normal’.
Some people have seen me switch on and off. I was walking with my friend Didi when a girl approached us. She was a girl I’d known since we were kids, and was, in a way, my first frenemy. Let’s call her Mandy. Mandy and I had a unique relationship. I adored her, looked up to her, and crushed painfully on her big brother. But I also resented her for being so smart and beautiful and perfect.
Every time Mandy invited me for some party or event, I said no, because I didn’t feel I had the right clothes, shoes, style, brains, personality to fit into her world. So I stayed away instead. As Didi and I walked towards Mandy, I mumbled about how much Mandy intimidated me, and how she was the last person I wanted to see, and how much I hoped she’d walk right past and not say hi. Then Mandy reached us and I flashed a 50 watt smile and a bear hug. When she frowned and asked why I had skipped her birthday party, I told her I was sick.
I was careful not to watch Didi during the exchange, but once Mandy was gone, I noticed her dropped jaw and accusing stare. “You are SUCH a pretender,” she whispered, though, to her credit, she didn’t slap me and walk away. And to my own credit, I hid the crushed look in my eyes, shrugged, and continued the conversation from where it had stopped before Mandy showed up.
Why was I hurt? Well, because I wasn’t pretending. I hadn’t meant to be so nice to Mandy. It wasn’t even conscious. It was a reflex action because she’s one of my oldest friends and I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. I extend my reflex to strangers, waiters, watchmen, new people at work – anyone who looks like they need a warm hug or a kind word. But because it’s only ever intended to be a one-off, it doesn’t last very long, and I soon recede into my cocoon. I go quiet because I suck at small-talk and can’t be bothered to make conversation. Then they wonder what they did wrong.
Yesterday, I was sitting with a new acquaintance. I’ve only met him two or three times, and as usual, I was super friendly on the first day we met. He was a guest at on of my favourite hangouts, and I wanted him to feel at home. But yesterday, I said hi, then sat in a corner with my Kindle. He tried to strike up a conversation a few times, but I just nodded politely and got back to my book. I can only imagine how crushed and rejected he felt, but I told myself it didn’t matter because I needed to be alone.
I suppose that’s what my friends meant when they called me selfish. I put my needs above all others, and claim it doesn’t matter if they hate me because I don’t care what they think anyway. Whenever there’s a new situation, my first thought is how it will affect me. I avoid family weddings, funerals, social gatherings because of how crowds make me feel, even though I know my presence would be appreciated.
Whenever I’m invited to an event, my first question is whether I can bring the princess with me. That way, I don’t have to mingle with the crowd. I can simply find a
quiet hidden strategic position where I can sit and read a book watch her and keep her safe. But my selfishness goes beyond that. Sometimes it grows to dangerous proportions, like telling the truth to set myself free, even when it hurts the ones I love.
I realized something today though, something I’d read in a book but didn’t understand until today. I treat strangers better than I treat the ones I love. I spend hours reflexively entertaining a guest, then retreat to my room and leave my baby watching TV. I smile and laugh in public, then sulk and pull moods in my own home. The world thinks I’m smart and charming and sanguine, but my baby knows to bang on the bathroom door and drag me out when I’ve been there too long. She knows it’s where I lock myself to cry.
I worry about the subliminal messages I may be giving her. That strangers and visitors are more important than she is, so I constantly reassure her, hugging her, spending time with her, telling her she’s my number one, that she’s my whole world. But she still has to put up with me, to handle my temper, my depression, my moods. She sees me smile and wave at the visitors, then watches my face cloud and my shoulders slump as I shut the door, revert to default, and seek comfort in fiction and chords.
It’s not deliberate that I’m more socially appropriate with strangers than I am with my own child. I guess I just figured it’s home, I can be myself here. She’s with me all the time and I can’t keep up the act, whether or not it’s a reflex. But I realise that it’s really very cruel. It’s like men complaining that their women dress up and deck themselves for work, for outings, for strangers, then come home and wear stockings and face masks for the one man that deserves to enjoy their beauty.
I may think that whining, crying, and letting loose with my loved ones is simply being myself. I may think exposing my weaknesses to them is a show of intimacy and trust. I may value having that one person that I can call when I need to totally lose it and cry. I may consider it a ‘privilege’ to let them see the ‘real’ me, with all my whining negativity and inadequacy, that it’s a show of intimacy to expose the deep, dark misery that the rest of the world doesn’t see. I may show my love by openly sharing the worst of me, and daring them to accept it just to prove they care for me.
I had a friend once who trusted me so completely that he showed me flaws even his mother didn’t know. The world saw him as perfect and confident and solid, but I’d seen what he was like when the lights are out. And while I was glad he could trust me so completely, it drained me to hold all his secrets. Sometimes, I’d be so low that he’d call and I’d think twice about answering, because I couldn’t handle a dose of him just then, and I’d have to fight the need to run away. When he took his own life, everyone was in shock, but I knew why, and I understood, even though knowing him that well was sometimes more than I could take.
It hurts me to realise I do the exact same thing. I may think my baby putting up with my moods is a show of love, part of ‘normal life’. But the truth is that love places others above it itself, and that maybe, just maybe, it includes treating my dear ones with the same ‘social correctness’ that I reserve for strangers. Perhaps true love isn’t about freedom, acceptance and unrestrained expression.
They say you are what people think you are. I always thought that was a PC way of saying ‘fake it till you make it’ but maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe ‘being true to myself ‘ is overrated, and genuine love simply entails ‘pretending’ and showing my best self to those I care about the most, instead of just reserving it for photo ops and strangers. After all, it takes immense effort to keep up the act indefinitely, and nothing shows love more clearly than working on it.
And maybe if I fake it long enough, I’ll eventually turn into the swan that the world seems to think I am. As a start, I’m getting an extra sofa and noise-blocking headphones, so I can put on my reflex smile as I sit with my Kindle and watch whatever my baby wants to watch, whenever she wants to watch it, for as long as she wants me with her. She really is my whole world, and I’d rather lie to myself than be honest and hurt my daughter.
♫ Powerless ♫ Linkin Park ♫
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