Illustration by Gabrielle Conlon

I was in sixth grade when I realized that I did not have a normal, healthy, intimate relationship with my family. This was a multi-step process, and by multi, I really mean two.

The first instance was one in which our assignment was to draw a map of our heart. I had a design I found quite beautiful. It was a typical heart, longer than wide, with a small heart at its center and petal-like semicircles circling it, making the thing look like a rose. Within the petals went words and short descriptions of the things I held dear, the dearest toward the innermost heart. I started at the center and worked my way out: books, my cat, my favorite beach, and happiness in the middle. I was proud of my rosy heart right up until the teacher said, “Okay! Let’s share what we have!” While a brave soul, I did not volunteer to go first. A classmate raised her hand and held up her drawing, “FAMILY” the largest word visible. Classmate number two also had family in huge letters at the center. Family followed by faith all went hand in hand in the middle. I had neither even present in my heart map. My first thought was that I was going to go to Hell. Being a girl in a Bible belt public school breeds this incredibly real fear in you. My second thought I buried out of fear: I didn’t actually hold my family close at all.

The second process happened after my rebellious sixth grade phase that most sixth graders had. Mine took the form of a secret boyfriend. Having Bible belt parents meant that even having male friends was grounds for punishment. You think I’m joking? Girls that associated with boys were the most heavily ostracized of all in elementary school, but I digress. I thought I had successfully held secret the relationship, but then my mother confronted me at a family party and asked me “Emma, do you know who (his name) is?” and proceeded to reveal that they had ALL known the whole time. How, you ask? They revealed then that they read every text message I sent at the end of each month and would share them with everyone else in the family. As they laughed, I stood there mortified, waiting for the “April Fools’!” that never came. Still talking good-naturedly, an aunt told me “We will always know where you are and who you’re with. Someone always sees you, and they’ll tell us. Don’t you ever try to lie.” I asked them what I did to make them question my trust. My mother told me that it wasn’t a matter of trust. A cousin called it love. I decided that if that was love, I wanted no part of it. Ever since then I have ostracized myself from anyone trying to seek a relationship for fear of their disapproval or something like it. I don’t even know. All I know is that after being publicly humiliated by my parents, I went online and did my research. I remember I asked an advice account on Instagram if it was normal, and they told me no. I didn’t know what to do.

Four years later, here I stand, now knowing other reasons to sever the intimacy between myself and my family. Reasons like years of verbal abuse, pathological lying, addiction, and manipulation. Reasons like me commenting that a pregnancy announcement was cute and my father looking me in the eye with solid countenance and saying “Don’t you ever tell me those words.” Reasons like one part of the family pinning me against another and forcing me to pick sides in a war I can’t walk away from, as people, as political supporters, as anything.

So yes, every time a break at school rolls around I shudder. And yes, I get anxiety when so much as texting a guy that I think may be interested in me as more than friends because what do I say or do and what if he does and what if my parents—

But.

Without these, I would not appreciate the love that is in my life. It is not intimate, but it is vast. I am not without love. I walk into my community theatre and I am hugged and asked about my life with genuine curiosity. I walk among the writers of my community and we admire each other’s souls bared on the page, all support and admiration. These are the people that make me better, the people that remind me there is much love in this world. There are things that, while they can’t ever fill the canyon that divides me and my family, remind me that I am lovable nonetheless. These are not words for pity. These are words of strength. This is by no means the worst family situation one could have.

However difficult one’s familial situation may be, do not write off other forms of intimacy altogether. A person may never be close with their family. That is perfectly okay. To lack intimacy in one field is not to say that there will never be any intimacy ever in your life. It may not seem like so, but there are so many more spaces where intimacy is possible, and they do not have to be romantic, either. There is a challenge in not having a family to fall back on, but to have a friend that fits the soul is almost just as well. To have a passion so ingrained into your soul is healing. These will never fill the hole that a lack of stable relationship with your family leaves, but that is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to meet your needs as a person that deserves to love and to be loved on a personal level.  Do not lose hope. The world is a vast and nearly ceaseless place full of love waiting to be accepted—a love that can be cultivated to fit you the way intimate relationships should. You are more than worthy of true intimacy. Do not allow for a decision you had no say in, like where your roots grow, to dictate where your intimacy comes from. If your roots are in bad soil, seek fertile ground. It is your right to be able to grow and have something to hold on to.