In a large messy family, somewhere in the middle, was me.
The quiet one.
I didn’t know I was shy until someone told me I was. I didn’t know I didn’t have much to say until someone pointed it out. I didn’t know I was an introvert or a highly sensitive person until much later on so, as a child, all I could do was apologize.
The worst thing a noisy person can say to a quiet person: ‘Why are you so quiet?’ I’d get asked that all the time.
My family was large, dysfunctional, and chaotic. My mother was strict but fair, loving, but not a touchy-feely way, with a fondness for shouting. Most of the shouting was aimed at my father, who had fathered six children with two wives and didn’t seem particularly interested in any of them.
Least of all me; that’s how it always felt.
Photo: Marc Schulte/Unsplash
Because I was the quiet one, the shy one, the dreamer, I lurked in the background and hid behind chairs. I was a crybaby and my younger brother loved nothing more than inventing new ways to provoke my tears. My oldest sister saw me as nothing more than another unwanted sibling getting in the way of her rebellious teenage life, and she often told me I was adopted. She once made fun of my weight when I was twelve years old and I have never forgotten the words she said or the hurt I felt.
My other sister, close in age to me, was different. She saw me. She took my hand. In the playground at school, she would find me and help me button up my coat. She would brush my hair before our joint school photograph. If anyone made me cry, she would go and find them and sort it out for me.
I was lucky to have her but these days I wonder how much she saw me. How visible I was to her. She doesn’t read my books and doesn’t ask about my writing or my work. She smiles too much but rarely listens. Am I still a shadow in the background, hiding behind the chairs?
I have lost contact with my brother and my father and relationships between me and my sisters are strained and fake. We say all the right things and smile in all the right places, but something is wrong. Something is in the way.
I can count on my mum for support. She reads all my books and listens to my stories about work, writing, and my own family. I feel like she finally sees me.
As a child, as the quiet one, I became the all-seeing eye. People forgot I was there. I became an observer, which felt disjointed and painful at the time but now I realize it has made me a better writer. I used to lie on the floor outside my oldest sister’s teenage bedroom; listening to the music she played, wondering what it was like to be a teenager with a boyfriend and freedom. We rarely spoke, but I was an onlooker in her life.
My other sister was a guiding light for me and I tried to follow in her shadow but the glare she cast was far too bright. She twinkled and shone; slim and attractive with waist-length dark hair, she always seemed eons ahead of me, despite our close age. She was someone I wanted to be. I watched and listened, I learned. I saw.
My younger brother was a mystery to me. I never understood how or why he could be so cruel. I never understood what I did to make him dislike me so much. We were vastly different and we still are. I watched him stalk angrily through his childhood and teenage years, demanding, sulking, fighting, never wavering from the intense belief he had in himself. I didn’t want to be like him but he fascinated me. I watched.
I used to steal my dad’s cigarettes from his tin when he wasn’t looking. I’d smoke them with friends on the way to school or up in my bedroom, leaning out of the window. He never noticed but perhaps that was what I wanted… For him to catch me, for him to know, for him to see me.
My dad had two lives, two homes, and two wives. He didn’t tell his parents I had been born until I was six months old but still, I wish I knew what it felt like to have him look me in the eye.
In my life, I have grown, learned, changed. I have four children of my own and I’m married to my best friend. I run a successful business and have published nineteen books. I don’t care what anyone thinks of me anymore. I am too old now; it doesn’t matter. I like me. I love me. My favorite person is myself; that cozy space inside my head full of my made-up worlds and characters who are my best friends. I lean on myself, on writing, on music, and nature. I am at peace. I don’t shuffle around anymore with my eyes averted to the ground.
I will look anyone in the eye and hold my head high. I can stand in front of a room full of strangers and talk about writing. I can do anything I want now that I believe in myself.
But them…the feeling lingers. Feeling unseen, invisible. Was I just a ghost in that family, or did I exist?
Chantelle Atkins is a published author, mother of four, and co-director of Chasing Driftwood Writing Group and Chasing Driftwood Books. Chantelle writes for both the adult and young adult markets and has had multiple articles published by Author’s Publish magazine.
This article was originally published at Medium. Reprinted with permission from the author.