I was 7 when I first lost it; all thanks to a silly pair of rubber shoes.
All I did was wash them, hoping to come to school the next day looking clean; hung them out to dry; separated the laces from the shoes themselves, as I’ve always done.
In such a sudden shift of states that I can’t quite describe, it rained. So hard. I ran outside to fetch the white laces I so patiently scrubbed, ran back home and sighed a sigh of relief. It was minutes later when I realized I left the precious pair of shoes outside. Who would’ve thought?
Before midnight, I found myself inside my parents’ room, on the receiving end of a lecture from my Mom, which I would say, has changed my life forever.
Her first few sentences were about the pair of shoes.
The next ones were about negligence.
The next ones were about things I can’t even remember. And the last few sentences—the most memorable, I’d say—were about me.
They were about me...being adopted.
I’m not sure if it was disappointment or anger or impatience that led my Mom to finally open up to me that night. I never got to figuring it out. All I did that night was listen. Every word felt like a command: Listen. Listen closely. No problem—I was 7. I was wired to listen closely.
The conversation ended with her saying,
“We have learned to love you. You are loved here. So forget about this.”
That night, with her assurance, I slept peacefully. Life after that has been okay—except that I started hating the rain for obvious reasons.
I finished my elementary education with pride. I did so well at school. I became a constant achiever. I got medals every year. I also did a lot at home. I’d wash. I’d dry. I’d study. I’d clean. I’d obey. The good daughter. Almost perfect, if only she could cook. I was also a good teenager—the daughter any parent could ask for.
When I got to college, I almost played outside of character. I spent many days having fun with my classmates (back then, our definition of having fun was going to the mall, eating siomai rice, playing arcade, and getting a group picture), but having fun got difficult. Every time I found myself enjoying, I could hear a voice inside my head telling me I shouldn’t. It’s wrong. All I should be doing is studying. I should go home.
My mind created these stop signs—ones that would go on blinking whenever I tried to do something that made me feel fearless; something that allowed me to live own my life. I became afraid of trying out new things. Of exploring.
I asked to be transferred to a college nearer home. I didn’t want to be tempted to have more fun than I already had. As soon as I did, I continued working on being the perfect daughter. I took a course my Dad wanted for me. It didn’t matter that I wanted to pursue the arts. What mattered was what they wanted.
There was a small but immensely powerful part of me that has always wanted to please my adopted parents. It was my way of making myself worthy.
Three years into the course, I couldn’t bear to finish it. I don’t know on what holy ground I picked up the courage up to speak the most difficult sentence I'd constructed in my life, letting my Dad know I was shifting to Communication Arts. But it worked. In the months that succeeded, I found myself sitting in a writing class. A dream come true! I was finally living the life! Sort of. It took me more courage to live through days of coming home from school to see the disappointed faces of my parents. I was enjoying my studies, but condemning myself for it at the same time.
In between finishing my studies, it became difficult for me to find a constant set of friends. I was so self-conscious about what I did with my time. Aside from my college degree I didn’t want to cause more disappointment at home. I didn’t become the partying type. The thank-God-it’s-Friday type. I found my own space very sacred. It was safe. In it, I knew I wouldn’t commit any mistakes. My own set of circumstances were all very manageable. If A, then yes. If B, then no.
When I finished college, I sighed a sigh of relief again as I saw myself less of a burden. I vowed to spend every single penny of my salary on my family. There was nothing wrong with that, but that’s wasn't the only point. The small but immensely powerful voice took on a bigger mission: to find a way to make me perfect, pleasing everybody.
This led to my anxiety, which I developed at 22. Anxiety towards everything and everyone, especially at work. I was still very much afraid to make mistakes. I was scared to create relationships. Having fun was still very difficult. I still wanted to get home before 8PM. Travelling on my own was impossible because I found it selfish. Exploring life was a bigger impossibility because, well, I have other lives who depended on me.
I worked as a graphic designer but I couldn’t bear to stay long, condemning myself for every revision. I worked as a copywriter but it didn’t last; I hated myself for every grammar lapse. I started working as a teacher. I wanted my lessons to be perfect. Executed flawlessly. Whenever I failed, I’d beat myself up for it.
I’ve learned the art of adjusting within my inconvenient fear of mistakes, and when I say adjusting, I refer to a few things: crying myself to sleep at night, sulking, seeing myself as a very big failure, telling myself this just takes a little getting used to; marching my way to the bathroom every morning, trying to wash away the shame and the guilt of not being good enough. To be honest, this got me through for quite some time.
But pain has its way of piling things up inside of you and you don’t notice how high the pile already is until everything finally crumbles down.
Learning about my adoption created this new person inside of me who never got through believing she was unwanted. She held onto the only love she was familiar with—the kind she had to work for. In the midst of all this, I lost myself. I stopped claiming life as something I could take adventures in. I started seeing it as a linear road. That there was only one way I could get through and if I follow that path well, people will be waiting for me at the end, cheering. Clapping. Job well done. You deserve this.
And yet, the universe has always found its way to remind me of freedom. Whenever I see kids play. Whenever I read quotes about it online. Whenever I watch other people’s Instagram Stories as they randomly visit the beach. When I look at my life and feel a great discontent. I see in these small little things traces of a desire for exploration. Of life as a very big ocean of adventure waiting for me to dive in.
In some very random streaks of time, I find myself getting that tingling feeling. That shouting (or whispering) declaration that reminds me I am free to jump in and just do whatever, for the heck of it.
There are many things about my life that I regret. One of those is giving in to the idea that I was never wanted. Another is succumbing to the wrong notion of love—one that made me believe I had to work hard to deserve it. Adoption has created wounds in me that made me believe in the wrong idea of love, freedom, myself, and life.
But the stop signs finally work to my advantage now.
This, I vow, is a time for me to stop considering what other people might think of me. I want to stop trying to be good to be worthy. I will allow myself to get out of my safe space. I will dive into this ocean of possibilities.
I will run through the rain and maybe I’ll start liking it again. I will wear all the white shoes I could, mess them up, and not care.
I hope, with every molecule in my body, that those of you reading this are able to enjoy all that life has to offer. You don’t have to have it all figured out. You only need to allow yourself to dive in. The world is a giant unfamiliar place—in it, I hope you find that sense of wonder. I was 7 when I first lost it.
At 24, I am determined to find it again.
Charisse is from the Philippines.