In choosing my family, I choose to redefine my identity.
By M.L. Sukala
When I was seven years old, I learned that there are different types of blood—A, AB, B, O, positive or negative. They sounded like grades, though I could not order them from best to worst. I didn’t know my blood type. All I knew was that this mysterious liquid was swimming pool blue as it coursed through my veins and lava red when I scraped a knee, scratched a fingertip with the edge of a page, picked a scab as I dug below the surface.
The word blood was attached another hazy concept, too: family. Family was kind of similar—warm and life-affirming when everything was wrapped in calm. Raging, violent, scary when a small mishap ripped the perfect family facade and left a mess. Some called my family dysfunctional, others called it abusive, others called it “so nice.” I couldn’t tell which type fit. None seemed an umbrella wide enough to cover the many words, experiences, and memories attached to my idea of family.
To this day, I don’t know my blood type. Having stepped out of the picture of my childhood home, however, I know my family of origin type: dysfunctional, abusive, and sometimes nice, but not enough to gloss over all of the unkindness colouring the way they have interacted with me and with one another over generations.
Family is comprised of prepackaged roles: mother, father, sister, brother, uncle, aunt, grandmother, grandfather, cousin. Rooted in biology, defining these roles was easy for me as a child. It was straightforward: mother and father were parents to me and my sisters, uncle and aunt were mother’s siblings, cousins were uncle’s kids, grandmother and grandfather came in pairs who parented mother and father. Everyone came from someone else, we were all linked together through our shared genes.
For more than one kindergarten art class, I drew primitive portraits of my family. The dad could be any man, the mom could be any woman, the sisters, any girls close to my age. My family felt unfamiliar to me. Everyone kept a calculated emotional distance from everyone else, and I was not exempt from this icing out. As a result, trying to depict anything but a generic version of the people I should have known best proved to be an impossible feat.
I grew up in the eye of a storm. If I stepped one foot in the wrong direction, torrents of violence in various forms would crash over my head. A laugh too loud, a smile too broad, a comment too honest, and the air would suddenly ice over. My father would yell or whisper, sometimes raise a hand and crack it down on the nearest child or countertop. Any of these reactions was enough to stop the world for just a moment. My mother played back-up in his one-sided screaming match or jumped into the ring and added her own shouting, her own hiss. Egg shells carpeted every room in my childhood home.
Memories of my first twenty years are stuffed in boxes, disorganized deep in the recesses of my mind. The most mundane memories stick out. A Saturday afternoon spent zonked out in front of the television, watching reruns of an old 90’s show in which a character’s friend was experiencing abuse at the hands of his father; my mother remarked that we were lucky that my father never hit us, only yelled. That was a lie, but it made all of the inklings that my father’s mistreatment counted as abuse null and void.
There are bones in those boxes that cannot be excavated into the public eye; I am not ready for that yet. I was abused in every way: physically, emotionally, financially, psychologically, sexually abused, used, and almost destroyed if it weren’t for the right people getting me out at the right time. I may tell those stories one day, I may not. The point is that they happened, and made having a real relationship with the majority of my blood relatives impossible unless those things are acknowledged and reconciled properly.
I remember the day I left my house. My mother berated me for choosing a “fucking halfway house over a loving, supportive family.” I was leaving through an independent living program because my parents had been taking a cut of my freelance writing earnings for months, rendering it impossible for me to save up for my own place, a car, all of the other basic things needed for independence. I didn’t feel very loved or supported in that moment. I knew I was making the right choice, but still contemplated turning back up—knowing that this move could be what separated me from my family for a very long time, maybe forever. That feeling lingered, until my case worker turned out of driveway and onto the open road.
It’s been two and a half years since I left home. In the time that has passed since then, I have pruned the branches of my family tree. I have cut off contact with my parents, blocked their email, changed my number, deleted them on social media.
In that time, I have also planted seeds where I’ve landed. I have found sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunts, cousins, uncles, and brothers in the most unlikely places. I’ve found kinship in the psych ward, the shelter, churches, art non-profits, and seminars for entrepreneurship. I've seen who I could become reflected in strangers’ eyes—I like what I see.
My family tree has become a whole forest that spans across cultural, religious, political, and vocational differences. Not everyone whom I choose as family knows one another, but I love them all. Every mother and grandmother offers wisdom I couldn’t get from anyone else. Every sister offers her own unique flavor of unconditional, ever reciprocated support. Every brother offers a protectiveness I could have used in my earlier years, but am grateful to have now rather than never.
I have never chosen a father figure in this patchwork family. I may never have one. I can’t bring myself to connect to men in that way. Older men who take me under their wing feel more friendly than fatherly. I am okay with this. It allows me to challenge the idea of the family dynamic and build a family to my liking.
Not having one set family means that I get a rainbow of upbringings and perspectives that I can choose to apply or not to apply to my own life. Sometimes my Jewish family teaches me how to be a good person by example more than the Christian family who teaches by word. Sometimes my college graduate family tries to steer me in, what seems to them, the only path to a bright future. Whereas my non-college-educated family grants permission to do what feels right, even if society expects us to follow its tried and true path to success. My chosen family may offer unsolicited suggestions, but at the end of the day, I’m still living for myself.
Pulling from alternate viewpoints, I draw my own conclusions about myself and the world around me. Sometimes it seems more holistic than the narrow view that having one family can offer.
My origin family is not entirely erased from the picture. I have them to thank for my features, my medical history, my generational trauma, and some parts of myself. I still don’t know my blood type, but I know my family type: warm; gentle; kind; strong; supporting me 100 percent along the way, even if I’m wrong. And when we fight, we fight for each other. When scarlet spills from a scraped knee, we patch each other up.
As I grow my chosen family tree from the ground up, I grow into my truest self. In choosing a family that champions and supports me, I am free to explore who I am and who I want to be without fear of judgment. I still bear my biological family name. But in choosing a new motley family, I have chosen a new identity. One that is as integral to me as the very blood that pumps in and out of my chest.
M.L. Sukala started writing out of necessity when she lost her job and her home to make an income. While no longer homeless or unemployed, M.L. draws upon her experience in the undercurrent of society to highlight the struggles of marginalized groups in her personal essays and reported work. You can connect with her on Twitter at ml_sukalawrites, on Medium at https://medium.com/@mlsukala, and on her blog http://solidarityspeak.com.