I was listening to Armchair Expert the other morning while getting ready and at one point had to put down my mascara to replay a section nine-thousand times because I don’t think I’ve ever felt so seen.
The episode covered racism, internalized misogyny, fear, politics, self-awareness, drugs, public masturbation, and comedy (it’s really good, check it out). I know that you’re all thinking, “Oh, it’s the public masturbation she identifies with” and while I probably seem like the public D.J. sorts (get it? D.J. like spinning a record?! No? Fine!) what I actually identified with was the part where they talked about therapy, growing, and figuring out who you are post-therapy (or in my case, post-breakdown, post-therapy, postpartum).
Chelsea Handler said,
“…I have this new personality where I am self-aware. Where’s my edge from before? Am I still allowed to operate like that? Like that’s what makes me me. And now I have to like sand down the edges. How much. Yeah. How much are you willing to give away for your own real like essence of who you think you are or your personality anyway. Essence seems like a pretty heavy word for it, but you know what I’m saying.”Chelsea Handler
Cue the record scratching as the podcast came to a screeching halt in my brain (no, not that record this time, pervs). I replayed it. And again. Nodding “uh huh” to absolutely no one.
For the past seven years, I’ve had one major life change and subsequent identity crisis after another. Living in Italy started it all and if you’ve read my book, Naked (in Italy) or you came here from my travel blog Surviving In Italy, you already know the juicy hairy details. If you haven’t read any of my other stuff: I lost myself completely and had to rebuild somewhere between the cheap red wine and one too many espresso shots. Living in Italy at that time of my life was a transformative and amazing experience at first but it quickly led me down the path to crazy town. I felt way too vulnerable there and I wasn’t in a place mentally where I could handle it. It drudged up a lot of stuff from my childhood that I had clearly worked very hard to suppress like feeling unsafe and unstable and out of control. I love my parents but they were really young. My mom was a teen when she had me and she did her best on her own but she had no goddamn idea what she was doing (because none of us do). And sometimes we were homeless, and we moved constantly (I went to eleven different schools), and there were relationships and divorces and weirdness, and I had no control over the things happening in my life. So as an adult, I did everything in my power to avoid feeling that way ever again. And then I moved abroad. Italy was not my country, I didn’t speak the language for many years, and I’d fallen in love, like really in love, for the first time in my life and the old “cut and run” just wasn’t an option. But I didn’t have the tools to handle the loss of control or the vulnerability or the interdependence and I found myself paralyzed by anxiety and OCD.
The thing about anxiety and depression is that you don’t feel like you have a self when you’re in the middle of it because you’re too busy trying to survive your pissed off brain and skin prison. I felt like I was oscillating between being totally numb like I was in a video game and feeling everything in all of the world in an unbearable way. When you’re getting dressed you’re not like what makes me feel good? You’re like I need clothes because laws who cares I’m tired and why do my insides feel like bees?
Not long after leaving Italy and returning to my hometown, I started to feel at ease a little bit at a time. I could communicate easily. I understood the culture because it was the one I grew up in and felt less helpless. And then I experienced a few standard adult hiccups in two month span: a lost friendship, job stress, some grief triggers, marital strain after my husband entered an MBA program on top of working full time, and like dominos, every part of my sanity fell until I was no longer able to eat, sleep, think, or leave my house. I had a full mental breakdown that took two full years to somewhat recover, to be able to sleep at all, go out with friends, go back to storytelling and readings, and having fun with my husband when he wasn’t at work or studying.
It was a long road to recovery but I did it with the help of a really good therapist, an amazing psychiatrist, and a wonderful group of friends who banded together to create a sort of support group, a self-care group, if you will. I spent hundreds of hours in therapy working through one problem after the next until little at a time I felt sorta like myself again. At least, parts of myself because the truth is that the breakdown toasted my brain and after all of that therapy I was me but like a ghost of me (if the ghost had been a chronic scaredy pants). More like I was a much healthier but dull and nervous version of myself (without the numbing out, I became painfully aware that the world is kind of a terrifying place).
Then, because I was much healthier and feeling good but also getting “old” in terms of fertility (yee ole dusty eggs myth), we decided that we should probably have a baby if we wanted one (because apparently I need to be in constant flux?).
I had my son almost two years ago. And I left my job to be a full-time mom almost one year ago and that gorgeous, strong-willed two-year-old has been my life around the clock for a year. Really around the clock because my husband spent four months total out of the country last year and we do not have family help or childcare. And while I’m so grateful to spend all of this time with him and bond and just have fun, I don’t have time to think my own thoughts, to express myself as an adult, to shower, for fuck sake. It’s changed me, or at least it’s changed how and if I can express myself. In some ways the changes are really good: I’m more committed to personal growth than ever because passing on my shit to my kid is not an option, I’m becoming more patient because like I have no other choice, and it’s made me more empathetic to parents in general (yeah, I used to be one of those people who didn’t like kids and was like “why is your kid a dick?”). But in other ways, ack, I feel scatter-brained and boring and like I’ve lost everything that made me special or interesting or unique. My life as a mom during Covid is groundhog day every single day. I can barely talk to friends on the phone let alone think my own thoughts. And I’m struggling once again for what feels like the millionth time this decade to figure out who I am. Again.
And let me pause to clarify, when I say “who I am” I don’t mean it in like a deep existential way where I’m yelling into the sky “universe tell me what to doooo.” No. It’s different than that. It’s more like reconciliation–reconciling who I was, who I am, and forging who I want to be.
When I was younger, I was tough and independent, and artsy and fun, and the type of person to get shit done. I was ambitious and unafraid and willing to go any distance (sometimes literally across the Atlantic), to accomplish things, to change the world, to explore it, and to just live in it fully. Yay! She was interesting! But that person had almost no responsibilities, was also kind of a dick, often selfish, often numbed out, and like so protected that a nuclear dick couldn’t have penetrated these walls. I was effective and safe, but also self-destructive and reckless (oh the stories I could tell you–and one day will–where you’ll be like “this is wildly entertaining but how are you not dead?”). “Tough” people don’t grow and don’t usually have authentic relationships because they’re too busy being aloof. Ew. Nope.
It’s strange to realize that the independent take-no-bullshit personality that actually served me, totally stemmed from trauma and being perpetually afraid of being unsafe or unstable or vulnerable in any way. I liked my hard edges. My mom worked hard to toughen me up because she was so afraid that the world would destroy me. It worked. But at the expense of authenticity. And while I want him to be strong and resilient, I also want him to be brave enough for softness and warmth. I don’t want hard edges for my friends. Or my parents. Or my husband. Or anyone who has to deal with me.
So what now?
How do I reconcile all of these people I’ve been in my life? I liked the person who hopped on a plane and went to Italy alone, the person who wrote dark humor without a care in the world, and who stood up for herself and what she believed was right. I’d like to fuse those things with this new version of myself who is married and one part of a half, a mom and a full-time caretaker of this tiny little human, a person who cares about doing my absolute best, and who is trying to embrace vulnerability, and who knows that a lot of my old behaviors were super duper toxic af.
I’ve been grappling with this for a while and droning on in my journal. And now I’m droning on to you, my fave internet people!
Honestly, it’s not talked about enough but positive change can be hard to navigate. It’s almost like we’re afraid to talk about it because we believe it will somehow diminish the good. Being a mom is amazing and also really challenging and life-changing. Working on your mental health and childhood stuff is really good and important but it’s also hard and draining and it will probably change you in unexpected ways. It’s okay to admit that all good things can be confusing or hard, too. I mean, chocolate pudding is delicious but if you eat too much of it you’ll definitely get diabetes or at least shit your pants.
But there are difficult aspects of all life changes, even the positive ones.m.e.
There’s also this thing with gratefulness that I hate. This idea that you should be so grateful for xyz that you’re not allowed to talk about how it can suck, too. When you’re a parent, you’ll at some point find yourself saying “this sucked” and inevitably someone will tell you to just “enjoy the moment” or “be grateful” (which I am) which is just so invalidating and causes unnecessary shame and we do not need more shame in the world. And someone will inevitably point out that you should feel lucky that you’re privileged enough to be able to get therapy in the first place (also something I am grateful for and why I’m a mental health activist and advocate), so you start feeling like you can’t openly admit that there is anything hard about any of it. All it does is isolate us and make people feel alone which is the last thing anyone needs, especially right now.
I’m sure that most people have an easy time figuring this stuff out, or maybe not. Maybe we just never hear about it. Regardless, it’s been a strange and hard thing for me.
I’m sure it just takes time. Everything always seems to get easier with time. Or, lists! Everything is easier with a list! Yall know how much I fucking love lists and my obsession with all MochiThings (not sponsored but I should be!). Maybe I need a bullet list of everything I liked about myself before, everything I’m happy to be rid of, and a blueprint for the qualities I want to work on having in the future? Lists are fun! Let’s do a list!
Have you gone through a big life transition or identity crisis that threw you? Post-Therapy? Post-Parenthood? Post-Moving Abroad? Post-Shitty Ex? Share in the comments below.