I was born an incredibly creative child, a kid with vast dreams and huge ideas. I was a child who loved the love of others, a kid who always wanted to hug people, animals, plants, inanimate objects -- whatever I felt needed attention at the time. I was a chatty kid who loved to draw, to play with dolls for hours, who could find vast worlds of happiness in the promise of morning daylight.
My parents were married and divorced from each other twice before I was seven. My father disappeared for what seemed like years. Their relationship was incredibly strained. My childhood was dotted with appearances of the first man who would ever love me, who abandoned me whenever I did something that displeased him. I could never show anger, could never show temper at anything he did.
Everything pertaining to my father, including not showing up for dinner hours after he was supposed to arrive because he had to work late, had to be okay or he’d disappear again for weeks at a time. Visitation weekend was met largely with my father picking me up, renting a stack of movies and sticking me either in my room or on the couch while he left the house for hours, washing the car or doing whatever he could do so he wouldn’t have to deal with me. Happy to be in his presence in any way, I learned to be quiet, invisible, happy with anything he wanted to do: Mutable Me.
When the time came to visit my father’s family, I became the Dancing Doll, the portrayal of the perfect child, the testament to his perfect skills at fatherhood. When he remarried, I became the Perfect Stepsister to my father’s adopted children by marriage, putting up with hours and days of torture at the hands of a new family that accepted my father and his ability to pay for things that came with a punching bag for a daughter.
I learned to suffer quietly until high school, when I finally broke ties with my father and the family he had created. Years of my father grasping onto his position as Daddy would go on, with countless phone calls went unanswered from my side. Decades have passed. I assume my position has been filled.
I stayed with my grandmother while I was a child as my mother went to school at night and sometimes traveled on business to help build a life for us. I learned to become Invisible Child at that house, learning how to hide my fear of the dark so she wouldn’t get upset with me when I didn’t want to go into parts of the house that had no light. I tried not to push food around on my plate so she wouldn’t be insulted with the fact that I didn’t want to eat, that all I wanted to do was go home and be in my own bed.
Invisible Child went away when my mother got her degree, which is when I became Latchkey Kid and was able to come home by myself, make dinner, do my homework and take care of the house. Invisible Child would make an appearance when Mom would come home with a headache or need a minute to herself after a long day of work. But at least Latchkey Kid got to sleep in her own bed at night.
I learned to draw the world I longed for most, creating a glamorous idea of a life where everything was under my control. The colors of my drawings as a child got darker and darker into adolescence, the subjects of my art grew dramatic. Barbie became a really controlling bitch in my doll playing. Nothing and no one got hugged anymore.
I discovered alcohol when I turned 16, a substance that briefly suspended the role-playing, freeing me from having to figure out who to be for hours at a time. I drank enough to intoxicate four people of 140 lbs each when I went on a Youth Honor Band trip to Mexico the summer before my senior year, and I spent four days in a coma before I could be flown home as a medical passenger.
I was threatened with institutionalization if I showed even the slightest bit of dismay, so I became Everything Is Totally Fine Girl, who made it through high school and college without a single crack in the armor.
In college, I had professors who saw the artist, glimpses of my soul of colored light underneath the perfect veneer. They encouraged me to write, to sculpt, to let my feelings out. But, when a perfect storm of events occurred sophomore year - my Drawing professor told me that my vision of the world was rather flat and my father said I needed a degree that I could eat on - I downgraded my Art major to a minor and became Responsible Business Type, which landed me in Banking after graduation.
I got a job in Marketing at the Bank and the idea was to go into Creative Services, to combine my degrees into a job that would be the best of both worlds. My group executive said, “You have too much business acumen for me to let you sit behind a desk and draw all day,” and so I became Human Resources Woman, transferring to that department and line of work for 15 years.
I packed my paints and pencils away into a box and didn’t touch them again. I safely navigated the worlds of Corporate America so I could be Bill Paying Girl. I also became Whoever You Want Me to Be Girlfriend in all my romantic relationships so I could try and get a man to stay put, the thing my father could never do.
This went on for decades, until a nervous breakdown in 2005. It seems that years and years of trying to be everything for everyone and not knowing who you are, decades of sweeping the question “What about me?” under the rug all but ensure that you will eventually trip over your emotions like a giant mound under the carpet. Your mind fractures. Your soul splits open. When you wake up, when the smoke clears, you realize you are in a place you don’t recognize, surrounded by people you don’t know, and if that doesn’t scare you the real truth will:
You have no idea who you are.
It’s taken me years to figure out who I am. But after years of writing, of a vast archaeological dig of the mind and soul, I found the little girl who loved to hug everything and everyone, who wanted to color the world with colored pencils, and then I made it okay for that kid to become an adult and to come into the world.
It’s not an easy task: when you deny yourself for decades, not only does your real identity have to stand up and be recognized among all the other lies you’ve told yourself, but somehow you don’t trust yourself. You have to learn to forgive yourself, then provide yourself with a soft place to land. You nurse that fragile self to health, and then protect it with all your might.
The other day, as I was riding the subway, still on my path to rediscovery, I realized that of all the people I’ve ever tried to be, I like myself the most. I’m a sensitive, artistic person. I’m a really good woman. I’m smart, incredibly capable, sometimes funny. It’s taken a while to come together as a whole person, to grow up over the past few years after shrugging off decades of being everyone else. I don’t cling to others in relationships anymore. There are no holes in my story, no shadows I have to hide, nobody to be but me. I like me. I think I’ll stick around.
I neglected to mention that on this subway trip home I was carrying art supplies. Like my life, the artist in me is excited to explore colors again, the ability to create the world as I honestly see it, as Myself.
Have you ever had to journey back to yourself again? Did you ever have to pretend to be anyone other than yourself to survive? What other selves have you tried to be? Let’s talk in the comments section below.