The Power of Place

Stock PhotoWhere is home when home keeps moving?

I kicked and screamed my way into existence in a city 45 minutes outside of Johannesburg, South Africa in the late 1970s. Eight months later, my father, mother, sisters and I traversed the ocean and landed in Vancouver, Canada. From there we flew north, to Prince George, BC, the second largest city in the province, with a population of approx 71,000 today so I imagine it was around 50,000 when we lived there in the 1980s. I loved the snow, the spruce trees and pussy willow bushes. I was happy.

Then, in 1990, as I was entering into my teens, my family uprooted itself again. We packed our bags and left for Johannesburg Airport, stopping over briefly in Nairobi, where as white South Africans, we were told we could not disembark – for fear, I assume, of violence. This was my first inkling of the world I was about to enter. A world of racial tensions, the constant threat of violence and political unrest.

I lived in Pretoria, South Africa, with my parents until the late 1990s, when I graduated from high school. During that time, I transformed from a hyperactive, jubilant if slightly sensitive child, into a surly, lethargic, deeply disturbed teenager. Fearing for my mental health my father fed me antidepressants when I turned 16 and took me to see a neurologist and a nutritionist when I flirted with anorexia nervosa.

Despite my father being a psychiatrist, I had little understanding of what was happening to me. Only that I could not see anything beautiful about the world I lived in. I contemplated ending my life for the first time when I was 12 years old. The thoughts were simply that, thoughts, at first – but as weeks turned into months and months turned into years, the thoughts turned into harmful actions. Nothing seriously damaging at first: I would bang my head against the wall softly but repeatedly for hours. Or punch my one hand black and blue with the other.

I thought the darkness would pass after high school. My sister who had stayed in Canada back when my family had uprooted itself in 1990 invited me to come live with her while I attended university. For the first time, I had hope that maybe I wouldn’t die. My mother was reluctant to let me go, but eventually she and my father dropped me off at the airport and I left South Africa for good. I was excited.

Home became Vancouver Island, BC, where my sister worked. I signed up for university courses. Knowing no one other than my sister, and lacking an extroverted personality, I struggled to make friends. The dark thoughts returned. I sought out counseling but nothing seemed to work. My tendency to self-harm returned: I would overdose on the antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications I was prescribed, or I would cut into my wrists with scalpel blades I snuck out of my sister’s laboratory where I worked part-time to make a little extra cash.

I felt ill at ease wherever I went. A transient, just passing through. In 2006, the year my father and a close friend passed away in the span of a few months, I hit bottom. I left my full-time job at an on-demand publishing company, cut ties with my abusive mother, and started the hard work of re-assembling my life. Part of the journey included moving again. This time, to Vancouver, BC.

It’s 2013, and I’m still in Vancouver. I met my partner in 2011 and in two days’ time, we will move into our first apartment together. Yes, I’m moving again, but not far this time. At least not geographically speaking. But emotionally, this move is every bit as important as the many moves across continents I’ve made. And it’s just as hard.

This time, though, the darkness is just a memory. This time, I’m creating home, not just a place to stay. Together, M– and I are building a future, one day at a time. I never thought I’d be alive to experience this. I want to cherish every moment.

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