The Search for Belonging
We humans are always searching for a sense of belonging: to a community, to ourselves, a place, the world itself.
We want to feel accepted and understood. For some of us, the world is a harsh place, a place where we have been left out in the cold, facing barriers that other people might not come across.
My own journey towards a sense of belonging and acceptance has been riddled with pitfalls and lighbulb moments – times when I have felt more of an outsider than ever, and times when I have realised that only I can accept myself; that I belong to myself.
I was likely born deaf, but in the early 1980s, newborn hearing screening tests weren’t available in the UK. So it wasn’t until my aunt noticed that I wasn’t always responding to her that I took a test when I was 6 and was diagnosed with progressive hearing loss. This means that I could hear more aged 6 than I can now. My hearing has been stable since I was a teenager.
The test didn’t change anything for me because I had had time to adjust to the way I heard and saw things from birth. My parents and family fed me books and culture: being the first child in the family I think I was spoilt! My language developed well and I feel that this was because of how much I loved reading and being read to: there was no interruption in my language acquisition.
My sister was also tested at 2 years old and diagnosed with the same deafness. She also has a gift for language, and she has gone on to become a BSL (British Sign Language) teacher.
My search for belonging began in the primary school playground. There, I had a few friends, all hearing, who I didn’t feel were much different from me.
The problems began when friendship politics starting rearing their ugly heads: growing like weeds. I imagine many girls have been through the same: kids saying that so and so is my best friend, go and play with someone else.
I was fairly diplomatic; I wanted to be friends with everyone, to a point. Introversion played a part – I was happier one to one with people rather than in large groups, where I sometimes missed the context of conversation and games.
It all came to a head in the last year of primary school. I finally decided enough was enough and broke with this group of friends and set out on my own. Playtimes became a time for quiet reading on my own, until a kind and thoughtful member of my class decided to spend time with me.
I’m grateful to her for showing me that empathy is a powerful force for change. Under her friendship I felt more like myself and less fractured. I knew I had made the right decision when I witnessed the previous group of friends bullying someone else.
Since I was 7 years old, I had also been a member of an inclusive theatre company, Chicken Shed Theatre Company, now called Chickenshed.
Chickenshed gave me the chance to experience a world free of barriers and labels, a place where what mattered was that everyone was part of a cohesive whole – all having a role in a performance. It allowed me to let out any frustration and pour it into being on stage.
This outlet became ever more essential as I became a teenager, when my identity crisis hit its peak and I was torn between two worlds: school, where I was shy, lacking in confidence, and didn’t feel as if I belonged anywhere, and outside school, family and friends made through the Shed and other activities. I always had the escape of books, films and music.
Secondary school (high school) was difficult. My parents made the decision that I would thrive better in a school where an HIU (Hearing Impaired Unit) was available in a mainstream school. In a HIU (or PHU) a deaf or hard of hearing pupil can mix with hearing pupils, with the support they need through notetaking or supportive lessons taken in the HIU and possible British Sign Language support.
On my first few visits I felt like it was a positive move. It was a new experience for me to be around so many other deaf teenagers. I made a good mix of hearing and deaf friends. As an awkward introvert, I had my trying times but for the first couple of years at this school, I flourished.
When Year 9 hit, aged 13, I had my first taste of a confidence crisis. I spent most of the year feeling uncomfortable in my own skin, noticed not because of who I was, but because I was deaf.
I didn’t relate to the way some of the other deaf students defined themselves: as ‘hearing impaired’, though I had referred to myself or been referred to as ‘hearing impaired’ since I was young. A return to the friendship politics of my childhood was taking place amongst my small group of friends. I was also being bullied by another deaf girl in my year – the covert, small kind of bullying that chips away at self-esteem.
The next three years brought mixed experiences.
I discovered that I was stronger than I thought and could somehow deal with the alienation I felt at school by building relationships away from it. I met my best friend and soulmate during this time (thirteen years later and we’re married) and had some incredible performances onstage at Chickenshed. I had a few performances where I was part of translating shows into sign language, which developed my confidence and gave me the sense of growing into myself that I needed.
As I moved from school to University, I found a new sense of independence and confidence.
Though some aspects of University life didn’t suit me (I quickly figured out that I wasn’t an extroverted party animal and would always much rather go to the cinema than clubbing) but my course was one of the best things that I had chosen to do. Studying Sociology gave me more understanding of society and fed my appetite for new ideas and concepts that I hadn’t found at school.
Socially, I struggled. There were only a few deaf people on campus and in the end one of my housemates seemed to wilfully misunderstand my need for certain types of access (such as subtitles on TV) and made me feel, once again, like an outsider.
It’s what you do with these feelings, though, that make the difference between closing yourself off and changing the world, in your own way.
Blogging, in my final year at University, gave me the outlet I needed to work out my direction.
At first, it was a personal blog, but slowly changed into a feminist blog, as I discovered the feminist community, in 2005-06. This completely changed the way I saw the world, taking off my blurry glasses, awakening me to many hard truths about the world.
At the same time, I became aware of how much in-fighting there was. Debates are all well and good, but the constant fighting, defending and anger took its toll on me and in 2007 I decided to close down my feminist blog and start anew with Cats and Chocolate.
That year, I also decided to go back to University and do a Masters degree in Women’s Studies, which was one of the best decisions I ever made. I rediscovered my love of writing and was surrounded by people who inspired me to be a better person. It made me understand that we are all whole people. We all have a world within us.
I find myself going back to these experiences because looking at the past can show me the times when I felt intensely alone and alienated, but can also show me the times when I felt a part of something, something bigger than myself.
I have always quested for feeling a sense of belonging by searching outside myself but I have come to realise that what I have within me – strength, passion, determination and a well of creativity – is where I will find my belonging.
I belong to myself. No matter how many projects, causes and communities I get involved with, I have always absorbed their messages and philosophies but learnt to think for myself. All these experiences we carry make us who we are.
At times, I have to remember that we all need time to step back, re-evaluate, and readjust. I’m still learning to accept that being an outsider isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s just different – and equips us with our own unique perspective of the world.
This is why inclusivity and acceptance are so important to me.
I gravitate towards places where I can see inclusivity being put into practice: where I can feel that sense of people being accepted for themselves, but learning from each other. Growing from each other’s worldviews and adapting. Keeping an open mind. Not judging each other. Having a vision for the future and seeing beyond the surface: thinking about how the world can be a better place for everyone, as equals.
Liz is a writer, editor and blogger living in London. She has been blogging at Cats and Chocolate for 7 years and counting, and edits and curates the content on Deaf Unity’s website. She believes in empathy, inclusion, and the power of ideas.