“What if you try stretching your arms out in front of you to feel the walls of your space? Feel how much space you physically take up,” my therapist suggests as she demonstrates with her arms freely outstretched around her.

I lift my arms from my lap and try to extend them, noticing that they freeze as my elbows meet my hips. I barely push them away from my body before I notice my eyes brimming with tears, letting my arms collapse onto my lap. I’m surprised to notice that I can’t do it, not in my therapist’s presence. As I let my tears fall, I’m reminded of how much it has cost me to learn to take up space.

As a little girl, I was proud of my Italian heritage and the family I was born into. I boasted about my grandmother’s homemade lasagna and how I could beat adults in poker when I was in elementary school. I delighted in family holidays, when my entire extended family gathered at my grandparents’ home, and I spent hours playing with my cousins. My family was a tribe, and in it I found belonging. I was blind to the alcoholism, enmeshment, abuse, and racism that quietly infiltrated our gatherings.

Over the years, my eyes slowly opened.

One racist conversation over Christmas ham, my drunken father taking shots with my uncles, crude conversations as we ate Thanksgiving turkey, my mother’s codependency, my uncles’ mockery of my tender heart, disguised as playfulness.

I spent years trying to figure out a way I could remain myself and stay part of the family. When I became a believer in college I thought prayer and grace would be enough for me to remain connected. For years, I tried to love my family enough for them to choose kindness, to choose out of a toxic system. And nothing worked. The racism became more intense, the mockery became more aggressive, the drinking more excessive, the violence more apparent.

In small ways I tried to belong. I remember showing up to a family gathering and finding my family members wasted, as my uncle asked what I wanted to drink. When I asked for a glass of wine, he looked at me with disgust, annoyed that he’d have to open one of his countless bottles of wine for me to have one glass, while everyone else drank hard liquor.  Little moments like these accumulated as I became more and more aware of my needs, and of how much it cost me to try to maintain a relationship with my family. Enmeshment was the only way to remain accepted, and I could no longer tolerate it.

Years later, I’d decide to move out of state, far from the family I cherished as a little girl. When I decided to stop calling my mother every single day, she told me that in the same way she’d had to get used to me living far away, she’d have to get used to me not wanting to be a part of the family. Taking up space has woken me to the depth of darkness that surrounded me as a little girl and leaves me isolated from my biological family.

I am learning that true belonging encourages me to live embodied, taking up the space I deserve. Though I could not lift my arms in the presence of my therapist, that afternoon, in the safety of my room, I practiced feeling the walls of my space. As I lift my arms and stretch them wide, I picture the faces of my closest friends who invite me to both belong and to take up space. As I imagine the kindness on their faces toward me, my arms stretch out farther and my body relaxes. In these sacred moments, I feel the presence of Jesus, as He invites me deeper and deeper into goodness and wholeness.

This Red Tent woman has requested to remain anonymous. We applaud her courage to risk sharing this part of her story with our community. It is our privilege to honor and protect her identity.