There are a handful of instances in our lives that we may or may not consider to be defining moments. Whether it is celebrating an accomplishment, mourning a loss, or a small seemingly trivial bit of time that solidifies inside of you in such a way that you’re forever changed, well...we’ve all got them and sometimes we don’t know their influence or importance until much, much later.
The Netherlands was one of those moments for me and it’s not what you think. My life was far from glamorous, despite the photos I posted on Instagram or Facebook. This place became a moment in the sense that it didn’t go as I'd anticipated and I’ve spent the last four years mourning missed opportunities while carrying so much shame for my mistreatment of a family that took me in.
They know who they are and I’m hopeful that they’ll read this and not necessarily forgive me for my bleak presence, but I do hope they know how sorry I am. I’m realizing this now more than ever with great clarity - that my instability, insecurity, and inability to communicate with a grain of truth or reassurance cost me the solid presence of a Dutch family that took a chance on me.
I went over in September of 2014 and as we near the departure date almost four years later, I can still feel all of the anxiety, crippling depression, and overwhelming uncertainty that I carried over there with me.
I had no idea what I was doing with my life. I had two university degrees at the time and felt entitled, but I was lost in a culture and job market that did not favour my attitude or the specificity of my education. A Masters? In English? Great. This basically meant that I read books, wrote essays, and effectively communicate all thoughts with an elevated clarity, and yet I could not be truthful with myself. I was lost and tormented on the inside. I blamed Canada. I blamed my family. I blamed everyone but myself. I thought that if I left for a year then magically all of these broken pieces would find their way back to each other to create a sensible whole. Only then could I be me again, or a happier version at the very least.
I'll try to paint a picture of my mental state before deciding it was a great idea to pick up and leave. I had anxiety attacks every single day. I was scared to leave the house in case I had an attack in public (which happened a handful of times). I was so depressed from my lack of direction and purpose that I spent most of my days in bed re-watching shows and movies that would transport me back to simpler times. I barely ate, or whatever I did consume did not constitute as a full meal in the slightest. I was mentally and physically crumbling - tumbling into a pit of despair, desperate for things to change but without the slightest understanding of how to do so. I didn't know how to ask for help yet.
I either needed to remake the past or forge ahead to a new adventure filled future, and without a solid head on my shoulders or proper nutrients in my body, I bought a plane ticket to the other side of the world, thanks to this family who were willing to take me in.
Though I would have never admitted it at the time - I was 100% just following my boyfriend. It ate me alive to think that he would experience this new way of life without me and I knew that I had two options: I could be depressed in Waterloo or be depressed in the Netherlands.
I got on a plane with the highest of hopes, believing so deeply for a solid 48 hours that this trip and this job as an Au Pair would fulfill me and make me whole once again. My imagination conjured up a new reality where I knew who I was and what I was supposed to do with my life. I, in all honesty, believed that being an Au Pair would be some sort of game changing experience maybe. I was hopeful that I'd find some sort of sense of purpose and I liked the idea of creating a new life away from anyone who knew my past. In the Netherlands, I was free to be whoever I wanted to be. Anorexia was in the past and my mental instability? Never happened. I needed to believe that a change of scenery would be the cure. It had to be. I was desperately grasping for any strand of hope that presented itself.
But as most of us know, you cannot run away from your problems - especially if they’re internal.
And then there I was, in my new room, smiling as the kids unveiled their art they’d drawn for me as a welcoming gift, all of the youthful eager energy bouncing off of the walls - and all I could think about was how much I wanted to shut the blinds and fall asleep forever. It could have been the jet lag speaking, but my journals from the time confirm it.
September 17th, 2014
New place, same problems. I guess I couldn’t outrun this after all.
And so it was.
I’d made it over there with too many bags and not enough energy.
I was so tired.
Exhaustion is my main memory of my first few months there, unfortunately. I was living in this expansive house in Groningen and I was tired. Tired to the point where I’d go to bed early and begrudgingly wake up early to bike the kids to school, only to come home and fall back asleep until I’d have to go fetch them and then, gasp, hangout with them. I know it wasn’t supposed to feel like work, but it did. In my head I kept questioning this choice and saying to myself This is a waste of time. I have better things to do. Yeah. I hate myself remembering this harmful mentality, but I was sick. I was so sick and I just kept ignoring it, ignoring it to the point where I’d isolated myself from the people around me, the ones who were housing me and feeding me, and I prevented them from getting a chance to understand who this stupid, self-absorbed Canadian girl was. What's worse is that I prevented myself from getting to know these wonderful humans the way I should have - and I deeply regret this.
I was terrible. They knew I was terrible. But they tolerated me until they no longer could. I was essentially a child when I needed to be an adult presence. I was in no shape to be doing this job. I couldn't be a stand in sister or mother to these children when I could barely take care of myself.
I wish I would have spoken up sooner instead of hiding my truth.
I can still feel the toxic energy that would exude from me each morning. I doubt I woke up feeling grateful once for the incredible opportunity I was given. All I could think of, day in and day out, was that I was educated and worth so much more than taking care of kids, and yet I really was not worth more than this at the time. The fact that I felt that entitled was a sign of my naivety and inability to see myself clearly. I was worth exactly this and until I accepted this and stopped deflecting blame elsewhere or opened up to discuss my self-destructive behaviours, I would have nothing more.
Ultimately, I was relieved to leave yet I hated that I was so relieved. I cried until my eyes were swollen shut when they told me it wasn’t working out and I knew it wasn’t working out but they actually called me on my bullshit and now I was getting exactly what I deserved. I needed to stop getting stuck in my own head, I needed to speak openly instead of hiding, I needed to just be honest.
I blamed everyone but myself at first.
It's this weather! It rains too much!
I'm just homesick. I swear I'll be better.
It's this! It's that! Blah, blah, blah.
I tried talking them into keeping me for a job I didn't even really want. I was a failure. An embarrassment. How was I going to tell my family? All of my integrity was lost in those four months in Groningen and I’ve spent the last 4 years trying to recover it.
This was the defining moment.
Now, being relieved of my duties was a blessing in disguise even though at the time it was hard to see it that way. I was now faced with a new reality, one that I couldn’t ignore. I had to find a new job and a new place to live or else I’d have to go back home to Canada, a failure.
I did not want to admit that I had failed. It was proof that I just could not do anything right and solidified this worthless feeling that swelled in my gut.
I messed up.
I messed up so badly and to this day, I think about this family so often it aches my core. I just wish that they got to meet the version of me I am today. I know they would love me so much more now and be happy for this shift in my perspective and personality. I wish I wasn’t so abhorrent back then. Even though I now see my mental illness as less of a weakness and more as a strength, I did not have the tools to wield my mind to my advantage at the time and so I spent most of my days crying for what felt like no reason at all, exhausting all of the people around me, lying and pretending like everything was fine when I wanted to rip my skin off because I felt like some unruly creature took up space in my stomach, chest, and head. I was exhausting. I’m surprised my boyfriend didn’t break up with me because he’s the one who had to take me in and he let me co-habitat with himself and six other men from his basketball team. Yes. Seven men and sad, depressing me in The Slaughterhouse, which is a wonderful story for another time!
But, fortunately for me this defining moment lead me down the path I needed:
In the end, I realized that our defining moments do not necessarily need to be successes - they can be failures. I failed. I failed in a magnificent, expert fashion! I was let go from being an Au Pair! I don’t know why this makes me laugh now. Maybe the fact that I feel no more shame about it. I’m liberated from this failure because it gave me everything I have now and I can bask in the sunlight, no longer hiding in dishonesty.
This family, in their great wisdom, let me know in the most polite fashion possible (over candle light and tea) that things were not working out - and because of this honesty, this blatant truth that was confronting me and not letting me budge, well, I’m indebted to them. They did what no one else had the courage to do up until this point. They called me on everything and thank goodness they did.
What I've taken away from this experience runs deeps. I value honesty and integrity above all things. I do not want to ever pretend as though I'm a faultless human. My mistakes humanize me and are proof that failure paves the way for all forms of prosperity. My writing will always be sincere and my paintings will never lie about the nature of my being. There is no use in pretending to be that which I am not.
I do it for me and I do it for all of the teenagers that I work with in the classroom. You're allowed to fail - you just have to accept it and press on.
And to my Dutch family - thank you. I wish I'd been healthy and given you more when I had the chance.