When I was twelve, I entered what I called a “quarter-life crisis.” My math wasn’t bad; I was simply convinced I wasn’t going to make it into my fifties. Like most humans on the cusp of teenager-hood, I struggled with questions of identity and purpose. My mother emphasized school above all else, implying that I was either a good student or a waste of life. Teachers, on the other hand, cautioned that we were not our grades, standardized test scores, or audition results. No doubt this was intended to be reassuring—but to me, it was terrifying.
I thought I might be able to define myself with a career, but I never had a firm idea of what I wanted that to be. I toyed with pursuing music, writing, pharmacy, mathematics, law, astrophysics, firefighting, and more. Nothing stuck. People close to me have probably gotten sick of hearing me talk about Sylvia Plath’s fig tree so much, but it always resonated so powerfully with me, and still does. It made twelve-year-old me profoundly nihilistic. What was the point in trudging forward in nebulous blackness, toward more of the same? Wouldn’t it be better just to end it all now? Who would care about this loser who would never amount to anything?
If academic skill didn’t grant me purpose, then I needed some deep introspection to find something that would. Fearfully, I concluded I had nothing else going for me. I wasn’t the cool kid who always came up with fun ideas and got invited to everyone’s parties. I was a condescending asshole to kids who didn’t coast through classes as effortlessly as I did. I wasn’t the nicest or funniest or trendiest, or even the smartest. I had trouble maintaining my own opinions and wants, collapsing instead like an ironing board in the proximity of others’. I also had palpably abysmal self-esteem from believing myself ugly. I didn’t think confidence or lack thereof could be so obvious to others, but when a friend walked up and told me out of the blue one day, “Hey, you’re beautiful; don’t forget that,” I realized with a stab of embarrassment that my eyes told their own pathetic story in large neon letters. I hated being inside this skin, I didn’t talk to my family, and I didn’t want anything to do with anyone. I was an existential nightmare and waste of life.
It lasted for nearly ten years. And still returns for a periodic haunt.
When I started working full-time, I felt better. I like the feeling of productivity and contributing to a collective. Even if I didn’t genuinely enjoy it, I think it would have at least kept my mind too preoccupied to tip into the darker stuff. But Fight Club and anti-capitalists tell us we are not our jobs, either. We are not our mortgages, furniture, or kitchen appliances. Plus, work has been distressing lately, to the point where I’m questioning everything and feeling broken. So now I have two problems:
- I still don’t have a sense of self outside of work.
- When work goes poorly, my sense of self begins to dissolve again.
Harry Potter suggests that identity is a choice. You are in Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, or Slytherin because that’s what matters to you and that’s what you strive to be. This feels one-dimensional to me, however. I’m a lot more than a character trait. I’m also a lot of things that I don’t care to make into a Big Deal or factor into Who I Am. I can’t even test consistently into one Hogwarts house; it’s always a toss-up between Ravenclaw and Slytherin.
Are we to be our experiences, then? I don’t want to be my depression, androgyny, or queerness. I don’t want to wrap my identity around being a former smoker, drug user, alcoholic, and rape victim. But in a weird way, I sort of do. Two of my friends went out for dinner today to talk about mental illness and writing. Hey, I know about those things and would love to talk about them, too, I wanted to say and invite myself. I held back because I didn’t want to issue a “claim.” Tons of people take these sorts of things and are wildly successful at deriving artistic inspiration from them and making names for themselves, but I don’t want the labels. Maybe what I really want is the sense of community around pain and conflict, without having those seep into my individual self. Maybe it’s a little bit of imposter syndrome, too.
I’m not supposed to be my job, but I loved it, and now I don’t know what I am without that love. I do have a stronger personality now: wiser, bolder, kinder, more equitable, more caring and generous, and concerned about what’s best for the big picture and the long term. I am a writer, musician, gamer, exercise enthusiast, and significant other. Most days, that feels like enough. When put to text, it certainly looks like enough! I’m still figuring myself out, though. It’s been a long, arduous journey of healing to get to this point, and I’ve still got a ways to go.