Guest Writer: Amanda Nelson
The following is a piece my girlfriend, Amanda, wrote about her time here in my co-op. While she only ever stayed here as my guest, I know that she was family to so many people here.
The summer after my freshman year of college, I lost the last vestiges of the only home I had ever known. My parents had bought the house before my sister or I were born, so I’d never had to experience the stress of moving, or learned how to handle detaching my concept of “home” from a finite physical space. But less than two months after I moved into my first dorm room, my parents announced that they were getting a divorce, and one of the more tangible consequences of this was that we had to sell the family home.
Of course, I use the term “family” in somewhat loose terms, as the 4-member family (for lack of a better word) of which I am a part has, in retrospect, long been a much more fragmented quartet than I previously thought was heathy. Sure, we would go on trips together sometimes, and there was never any lack of love from each of my parents toward me or my sister, but as we grew up, we each found plenty of things to do on our own that kept us from doing things together as a family unit. And I think at times my parents were so distracted by unaddressed barriers built up within their own relationship that they didn’t always have enough energy left over to fulfill certain needs of the family as a whole, or of their individual children.
There is much I could say to elaborate/explain this further, but as far as it concerns me, while I have never doubted my parents’ love for me, or their desire to take care of me, I have also nevertheless found myself in periods of severe isolation several times throughout my life.
It’s odd because I can’t say I’ve ever experienced actual neglect, but there were certainly areas of my life that I felt unable to approach my parents with – areas that I felt I was expected to learn to cope with on my own. Or at least, I was expected to know at what point to ask for help, but keep it to myself until then. So in high school, particularly during my sophomore year, while my parents knew that I was staying up till three in the morning finishing my homework on a relatively regular basis, they never thought (or though they needed) to ask: “Why do you think your homework is taking you so much longer than other students?” or “Would you consider being tested for a learning disability?” And even a few years later, when I confessed to them that during that period of time I had struggled with self-harm, but was beginning to open up to my friends about it and was therefore doing much better so you don’t need to worry, guys – they said “Well if you feel like seeing a therapist would be helpful for you, we can get you help” but I was like “Nah, it’s cool” … until a year and a half later when the cutting started up again (except even worse this time) and my new best friend of a couple months sat down and told me she thought I might be clinically depressed and I should do something about it.
I tried to convince her otherwise, that it wasn’t a big deal, but she was persistent and I thank God every day that she was because who knows where I’d be if she hadn’t. Anyway, point being, I, like many people with mental health issues, needed help getting help – after all, one of the common symptoms of depression is a depleted sense of self-worth, and when you don’t think much of yourself, it doesn’t make much sense to think that you deserve to be helped. And because I didn’t know how to ask for help taking care of myself, and my parents – despite loving me whole-heartedly – didn’t always know what kind of help I needed, I’ve often ended up alone, stuck in my own head, not knowing how to reach out to people, and not feeling worthy of being looked out for.
In my junior year of college, I went on a semester-long trip to Europe with 39 other students from my school, and I still feel proud of the fact that even though there wasn’t any particular person who would notice my absence (unless we were all expected to be somewhere as a group), when I got left behind (which was often), I almost always did a good job of finding my way back to our hotel on my own, and taking care of myself (and in foreign countries, no less). I discovered I have an excellent sense of direction, and got good at reading maps, and even asking strangers for directions sometimes. But even still, this trip was another period of time in my life during which I felt, at the end of the day, very isolated. It wasn’t that I though people disliked me, or didn’t want me to join them for things – when I did attach myself to a group we all usually had a great time and got along fine.
However, if we had a free day, and people made plans and I didn’t insert myself into a group in time, I would inevitably go the whole day alone in the hotel room instead, without anyone checking in on me or even thinking of me. Not that I was special in this sense either – without any kind of group mentality encouraging people to look out for each other and wait up for those who might fall or get left behind, I know almost everyone on that trip felt like the odd one out at some point or other. And while I can’t speak to the other students’ overall trip experiences, I do know the particular effects this lack of awareness had on me. At a time when I was still learning the nature of my mental illness, and the particular circumstances that tended to exacerbate my depression, I could have really benefited from having even just one person on that trip who I knew I could always go to if I was struggling, or who would check on me even before I got depressed in the first place.
I probably would have felt much less isolated on much fewer occasions. But it never occurred to me to seek out a person like that, or to consider that I had good enough reason to ask for that level of attention from anyone.
Which brings me to Chateau Ubuntu. When I have visited the house, for possibly the first time in my life I feel like I’m part of a community that would actually notice if I didn’t leave my room all day. And I don’t even live there, I’ve only ever been a guest.
There is just something so life-giving to me about feeling like I am in a space where not just one person but the group as a whole is aware of my particular existence, and appreciates what each member of the community can contribute that is wholly unique and wonderful. It is unspeakably encouraging to me that not only are there people willing to devote that much energy to caring for their fellow human beings [especially ones they’ve only known for a few days (actually now that I think about it there were those in the house who were ready to welcome me into the community before they’d even met me)] but there are whole communities centered around these ideals.
It can be incredibly liberating to not always be left to ones own devices. And while my hope for eventually becoming a more permanent resident of Chateau Ubuntu has now been at least postponed, I am still so glad to have been introduced to the kind of family/community life there. Because now I know what to look for, and what is possible, and what is reasonable for me to want. I’ve learned that it is reasonable to want to surround myself with people who will seek me out with as much enthusiasm as I seek out them. People who will not only notice when I’m sad or upset but actually want to help me through those moments. And above all, I’ve learned that I can and will be able to feel at home in one particular place again, instead of being indefinitely divided, searching something that no longer exists outside my memories. It has given me a glimpse of what home and family are supposed to look like, and regardless of where I end up living, whether it’s Chateau Ubuntu, or Santa Barbara, or some other place that I haven’t even dreamed of yet, I now know that it can be even better than anything I’ve ever thought to hope for.