Power

I’ve been trying to write for a while (my entire life?) about not feeling at home anywhere. Call it third-culture-kid syndrome. Call it being a child of divorce. Call it being ethnically ambiguous (where are you from?). Call it whatever.

When I was studying abroad in college, I couchsurfed with this guy in Glasgow, Scotland over break. He had accepted my couchsurfing request, but seemed pretty ambivalent about my actual stay. Sort of a, “Yeah, sure, you can stay with me, or not, that’s fine” vibe.

When I got there, he had two other guys from Poland staying with him too. And maybe it was because I was a woman traveling alone, or for some other reason, but my host seemed genuinely concerned for my welfare.

It was already night, and he and the other two couchsurfers went out to go light writing, while I stayed behind to read my copy of Shakespeare’s complete works because I’m an English major, introvert and complete nerd.

When they got back, he tossed the guys some sleeping bags to sleep in the living room and asked if I wanted to sleep in his roommate’s room instead of sleeping out in the living room (all the roommates were out of town).

His roommate’s room was utterly wrecked and there were clothes completely covering the floor and even all over the bed, so I felt right at home. I made a little nest right in the middle and curled up like Rose on the door in the middle of the freezing Atlantic.

And I cried, overcome by a grief I didn’t even know I had.

I don’t know how to tell this story. I don’t know how to explain what it felt like to have this complete stranger show more care and concern for me in a few hours than I felt from my own family.

Earlier this year, I found myself in the type of shitty power dynamic I was pretty sure I had escaped for good.

And of all the people in the world, I feel like I should’ve known better. I mean, c’mon, I practically wrote the book on shitty power dynamics (I’ll take toxic jobs and relationships for $1,000, Alex).

But there I was, again, fumbling around in the dark with a constant low hum of guilt, shame, resentment and fear.

I’d been here before, more times than I care to admit. I think that’s what kills me the most, that sense of repetition, as if I’m doomed to repeat this shitty dynamic over and over again. Worse, I’m angry at myself for falling for it again.

I’m almost scared to go back and re-read the texts—to see how little it took to put me back in my place. Part of me wants to break down the diction, the syntax, the tone, the metaphors and similes, as if I can close-read my way out of shame.

I feel like this is the part where I should talk about not giving away your power, you teach other people how to treat you, don’t let anyone bully you over how much sunscreen you use, blah blah blah. But there are some narratives that hold so much power in our lives simply by virtue of their familiarity.

It’s impossible to exercise hyper-vigilance all the time, and as I’ve written about before, hyper-vigilance doesn’t protect you. I’m coming to believe that it’s basically the flip-side of shame, this idea that you can control how other people treat you or even how they see you.

When I write, I feel like I have so much power, but so little control—power to write into the unknown and the inexplicable, into those “Titanic” moments when I’m lost and adrift. And as much as I want to believe that I can control how other people “read” me (or leave me on read), I really can’t.

It feels simultaneously terrifying and freeing.

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