I Don’t Belong Here

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| This is the 312th story of Our Life Logs |


The sun came out not long after I was born on a chilly morning in August of 1987 in the heart of Transylvania, Romania. In the black and white picture that they took of me the day after my birth, you can see a tiny grimace of sleepiness glued to my face—nothing ambiguous or surprising about this photo, not a speck of the unhappiness or wrongdoings that were to follow in sight.

Raised in a blue-collared district, I was the only daughter of two high school sweethearts. While they had their peaceful moments, my very first memory is of my dad verbally abusing my mom while I sat on my grandma’s lap. I can still see the silver knife that my dad flashed in front of my mom’s face. I don’t remember if my dad was reprimanded for that. If I had to guess, I’d say probably not.

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My innocent smile from a peaceful moment, 1991.

Sexism and domestic abuse are not “of the past” in my country. In fact, there’s a not so popular joke in Romania that goes, “What’s a woman doing with a blank piece of paper? She’s reading her rights.” While I grew up with these impressions of women surrounding me, my heart and mind could not comply.

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Three days before my third birthday, my brother was born. As kids, we fought a lot but also had many fun times chasing each other around the house and playing outside in the crisp air. Unfortunately, things began to change between us by the time I was 10.

First day of school.1994.
My first day of school, 1994. My father and mother are pictured behind me on my left and right.

This was when I started seeing a difference between the tasks my parents gave to my younger brother and to me. On many Sundays, I was the only one who had to clean the table after meals while my brother was asked to “run along and play outside.” In the beginning, I protested. As a child myself, I felt this was unfair. My brother was perfectly capable of holding a dish towel to dry the plates I had scrubbed! But my mother always said to me, “This is a task that every girl needs to undertake, and since you are growing older, you must accept this.” And so, I spent many Sundays alone with my belly glued to the kitchen counter, scraping mashed potatoes from different plates and pots. Although I complied, my anger was always there, simmering beneath the surface.

As my brother and I grew older, the contrast between how my parents treated me compared to my brother became more prominent. My brother was free to dress and act how he pleased. I was ordered to keep a “ladylike” appearance. Often before school or going out with friends, my mother and father would say, “dress like a lady,” “remember to put on some rogue,” or “do what’s expected of you.” My mother even limited how much I could eat so that I’d become thinner. I would get so hungry that I used to sneak food behind her back and eat alone.

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Bit by bit, I became entangled in guilt and shame. My family mocked me and made me feel uncomfortable in my changing pre-teen body. When I got out of a shower with a towel wrapped around my body, my dad called me names. I stopped wearing shorts and started hiding inside baggy clothes so that nobody could see how I looked.

After years of feeling unseen and unheard, you’d think I’d get used to it. However, when my grandfather gave my brother a piece of land and money to buy a car as an 18th birthday present, I howled in anger and despair for months.  Three years before, after taking my driver’s test, I had begged my family to buy me an old car so that I could practice driving. All I got in return was a vanilla cake and 25 euros worth of coupons. Being discriminated in my own family was not a strange feeling to me, but my brother’s birthday gift was too big of a blow to my self-esteem. After all, how much time can somebody protect oneself from indifference and hurled insults until it sinks in and becomes a part of them?

Two more years later, I was finally able to leave my family home and move to a new city with a man I fell in love with. Yet, even away from them, my family still haunted me. Before I’d left, I helped my mom divorce my father and ever since then, I woke from nightmares of my father trying to get his revenge. I also noticed the pain seeping into other parts of my life. For years, I tried to function with limitations and guards up. I didn’t know then how desperately I needed to find a proper way to heal. Instead of searching for it, I locked it all inside. My attitude toward many people was aggressive because I kept my guard up, afraid of being hurt. I knew these people didn’t deserve it. I realized that I couldn’t ever feel happy if I stayed in Romania. I didn’t belong here. I dreamed of leaving and never coming back.

Beginning of June.2010.A few weeks after I met the man who changed my life
June 2010, a few weeks after I met the man I fell in love with.

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And so, in 2011 when my partner received a job offer to move to Vienna, Austria, I decided to follow him without having any second thoughts. I took my chance to escape. I imagined for the first time a new life, where nobody knew me, where I’d be an independent woman, boldly discovering new opportunities, and blossoming into the person I’d always dreamed of becoming. But, as in most stories, things didn’t go as planned.

After moving to Austria, I gradually started feeling how heavy the weight of walking through the pain despite a change of scenery really was. On top of my repressed pain, living in a country without proper legal guidance and without knowing the language, left me very vulnerable at a time that I was craving stability. I fell little by little into a state of deep helplessness as I struggled settling in Austria.

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My second time seeing the sea in Stavanger, Norway, 2011.

I didn’t realize when I agreed to move that in many European countries, Romanians and Bulgarians had restricted working permits up until 2014. If you were not eager to apply for very low-paid jobs in agriculture or the cleaning industry, the chances of somebody hiring you were slim to none. You either had to know somebody who could help you get hired or speak perfect German so you could somehow talk your way out of your situations, and I had none of these advantages.

Despite all this, I thought I had found a job. I was mere minutes from sealing a contract as a store assistant when the manager abruptly told me they couldn’t hire me—because of my nationality. It took all my strength to hold back tears as I rose from my seat and walked out the door. It was then that I lose all hope. I was unwanted in Romania and I was for sure unwanted here in Austria.

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In the days that followed, I woke up early every morning, attended my obligatory German classes and then went back home as soon as possible to be away from people. The only way I could handle and feel a part of society was when I started smoking weed. It was a decent coping strategy for a while. But with time, the habit turned into something bigger than myself. Basically, smoking day after day, piling up the frustrations, bit by bit my life became an unbearable circus where the only clown was me. I stopped leaving the house and trying to connect with other people. Some afternoons, I cried at the window as I watched the people on the streets, bitter and jealous that they don’t have to fight to belong. I started to feel like my life wasn’t worth living.

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Me in Vienna, 2013.

Though my world was still such a drag at the end of 2014, I finally decided to spend my first Christmas and New Year’s Eve at home since I’d left three years ago. I had hoped that the distance made things being better than before. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I returned to my mother who was too busy with her new boyfriend to be truly present and my brother who was treating me like we barely knew each other. I sat in the kitchen feeling like I was dying a slow death. I started thinking, “I don’t belong here,” over and over. I tried to talk about my feelings with my family, but like always I felt like my words were falling on deaf ears. The unbearable heaviness of accepting reality hit me—it’s too late. They’ve moved on. I went back to Austria and locked myself in the house for over a month.

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Like always, I crushed my feelings down inside me and pretended like they weren’t there. Although I did stop smoking when I realized the ease I felt was always just going to be temporary. Fast forward to March 2015. I had a massive panic attack on the subway. My life was melting away, and there was nowhere to go. At that moment, I felt like there was nothing else that I could take or smoke to stop all the feelings I tried for so long not to feel. All the screaming and yelling that was background noise growing up, all the unfairness I had to confront within the Romanian academia, all the discrimination present within the workforce both in Romania and Austria, all the trauma of systematic racism and racial profiling I experienced were now sitting like memory stones in front of me. And how can you pass through a cemetery without looking at the graves? Well, you can’t!

After the panic attack, I realized that I needed help. I needed to talk about my pain. It would be a massive understatement to say that therapy was tough. I had to revisit and dig up memories that—some even to this day—have the power to stop my breath. I had to remember times I felt marginalized. With every step that followed, I never lost hope that my spirit would finally heal itself. With my second therapist, I eventually found a holistic approach to my healing in 2018. I started a neural processing of emotions that mend my mind and body known as EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing). I took life day by day and mended my heart.

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It’s been four years now since my first therapy session, and one year since I started processing my traumas in a holistic way that works. Although my mind, body, and spirit have never been so well as they are at present moment, I still have days, and sometimes even weeks, when my anxiety and depression flares. However, I now have the confidence to change things that put too much pressure on me. I choose what bothers me. I’m not afraid to feel anymore. I have the choice to fight past the expectations/stereotypes about me.

When I recall all those old versions of myself and how hard they’ve fought to become who I am today, an immigrant with a voice who wants to do work for her community, I can’t even put into words the emotions I feel. And as communities become stronger and bigger all around the world, I only hope that our past trauma will heal, and that our shared consciousness will break the generational patterns that seem to keep repeating until the lesson is learned. At the end, we only have each other and this earth.

 

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This is the story of Alexandra Cozma

Alexandra is a creative writer, a marketing assistant, and coordinator for several transformational coaches, who grew up together with her brother in a shady neighborhood at the outskirts of Cluj-Napoca, a city in Romania. Because she often felt discriminated against both at home and at her workplace, Alexandra moved to Austria to pursue a better future. After being faced with the social reality of being an immigrant and not knowing how to deal with the culture shock, she suffered for some years from depression, followed by a period of daily panic attacks, and general anxiety. Since she started her healing journey in 2015, she discovered dancing and massage therapy as practices which help ground her and stay connected both with herself and others. She also does a lot of bodywork that includes getting deep-tissue massages, and trauma releases exercises. She currently lives in Vienna, and is an ambassador for a mental and emotional health organization for expats called U! Shine. She wishes to transgress her generational and cultural inherited limitations and express her vision in a complete aesthetic manner.

 

 

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This story first touched our hearts on March 15, 2019.

| Writer: Alexandra Cozma | Editor: MJ; Colleen Walker |

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