The first time someone told me to just “be myself” I was fourteen-years-old. I had ditched the security and predictability of my lunch table for a more daring group. These girls didn’t always follow the rules. They mouthed off to teachers, rode in cars with boys, smoked afterschool by the racetrack, and were so enticing to the good girl I had generally always been. My phase lasted about four months, right up until I got grounded for being a smartass to my science teacher and directly after my old best friend looked at me disappointed and said, “You’ve changed. Why can’t you just be yourself anymore?”
Her words got me right in my bleeding heart, right where the soul of a chronic people-pleaser rests despondently. I’d disappointed everyone -- my best friend, my parents, my teachers, myself, and basically everyone who ever mattered. I’d kidnapped their sweet, cheery Annie and turned her into a back talking badass wannabe. Humbled by my lack of judgement, I did exactly what old Annie would have done. I immediately auditioned for a summer musical and poured myself into Grease for four weeks, leaving the Pink Ladies of my freshman year behind and resurrecting the Sandra Dee inside me.
Four years later, a similar scenario played out. I quit the music department because the alternative was frat parties and football games -- an either/or that seemed pretty obvious to an eighteen-year-old on the loose for the first time. Instead of the girls in my pledge class, I latched onto the older girls in my sorority. And holy hell were they fun! I was just a bright-eyed virgin girl, but with them I at least had a little cool under my Steve Madden heels. But it didn’t take long for Mom to speak up.
“I’m not sure I like this crowd you’re hanging out with,” she said one weekend I was home. “You should be spending time with members your own age.”
I knew what she really meant. Moms can sense bad influences the way kids can sense chores. She thought the older girls had changed me. She thought I’d stopped being myself.
“Mom, they’re harmless. Besides, I’m an adult now. I can hang out with whoever I want.”
Mom then proceeded to hand me my laundry bag, the fifteen pounds of a month’s worth of clothes I’d brought home for her to wash. “An adult does her own laundry,” she said with satisfaction.
I’d disappointed Mom and I had to do my own laundry. My bleeding heart poured out again. I didn’t ditch the group this time. At least not the way I had in high school. But I did eventually peel out and into a circle of sorority members my own age. Mom was right. I needed to form friendships that would last the duration of college. I didn’t let her know she was right, and I especially didn’t let her know I was relieved -- relieved that I wasn’t disappointing anyone again.
After another four years, I fell into another bad patch. It was a boy -- one of those bad guys who makes you think the reverse of everything you’ve ever believed. He must have been very attractive because I spouted out some strange things that spring and was a fragile shell of my former self. I mean, even I was all, “What the hell, Annie? Who is this girl?” So I moved to New York, far away from him, and somewhere no one knew me -- a place no one would tell me to be myself.
I suppose that up until that point, running seemed to be the solution to being myself. But cut to about two decades later when the self-made kiddie quarantine of motherhood had lost its charm and I desperately wanted some semblance of my old life back. Being myself wasn’t so easy. I wanted to wear skinny jeans and flowy tops that smelled like perfume and not animal crackers. I wanted smokey eyes and lip gloss and not frumpy clothes. I wanted witty conversation. I wanted dirty conversation! I wanted a flipping martini at a bar and not in my pajamas after the kids went to bed. I wanted to be myself, dammit. Only it had been so long since I’d lived that me-life that when I ventured back in, for a short while, I sort of fell in.
My kids don’t know about the number of girls’ nights when I stumbled in at two o’clock in the morning tripping over my feet and that in the mornings after I served them toaster waffles completely hungover. My kids don’t remember how many nights I rushed their bedtime prayers and stories so that I could meet friends for cocktails and still feel like a good mother. My kids don’t remember that for a good six month chunk my priorities were so out-of-sorts that one day my daughter said, “Mommy, you’re leaving again?” And that she was totally justified and not seeing it through a child’s lens. I had been absent -- at least too much for this mom’s liking.
I’m grateful my children have no memories of a drunk mom or those days. I’m grateful all they know is a Mom who is always there when they need her. I’m grateful I couldn’t run that time and that, instead, I figured my shit out and found balance between social-me and Mom-me. I’m grateful I have a husband who let me fall and figure it all out because I was the one who said, “You’ve changed. You’re not yourself, Annie.” I needed that reconciling with myself. But most of all, I’m grateful that it all made me finally understand the value in not simply “being yourself” — as if “yourself” is some inanimate object that just is — but rather in being some person who has a story behind her, winding, crooked, unpredictable, miraculous, and magnificent all in one “unputdownable” book.
When I was younger and people would say, “be yourself,” I cringed. “Be yourself” was akin to time out, like being myself would keep me in my place and out of trouble or something. Being myself was safe. But back then, I didn’t want safety. I wanted to experience life outside the security I’d always known. I wanted to feel different. I wanted to be different because at the crux of every phase was the truth that I didn’t really know who I was enough to “be myself.”
As a mother, the thought of my sweet, innocent children mingling with angsty phases and fast crowds rattles me. A mother worries about her children nonstop. A mother wants to keep her babies close and ensure their preciousness never leaves this world. But this mother also knows the value of falling -- falling down rabbit holes and into confusing worlds. I’ve fallen on my face (and my ass) enough to know that what doesn’t kill you, makes you you (and good blog fodder!) And that there’s only one permanent way out of a rabbit hole: the same thing that got you there — curiosity. If “be yourself” sounds more like a punishment than a compliment, it’s time you got to know yourself.
Nowadays, being myself is liberating, ballsy, as satisfying as a well spoken comeback and as comforting as a cozy blanket (or fuzzy socks!) But it took getting comfortable with embarrassment, disappointing others, and making mistakes to get here. It took running with crowds who didn’t resemble me, new looks, daring choices, and looking like an ass several times to finally say, “If I’m not being myself then who the hell am I anyway?” It took one too many fucks given to finally establish my opinion without worry of the interpretation of others. It took angering others to stick to a point of view in order to like myself. It took educating myself on the topics of myself in order to speak with authority. It took seclusion and being selfish with myself in order to know my priorities and stick to them. And, it took too many “be yourself”, “you’ve changed”, and “what happened to you” moments for me to finally balance my faces and phases and embrace, walk, and live out who I want to be without worry.
I know enough to know that I had to stop being agreeable in order to agree with my true self. I had to find my reasons and not the reasons of others to be me and make choices I could live with. Yes, I’ve made mistakes and live with regrets. But I regret more what I haven’t done than what I have because everything has led up to the woman I am today. If it weren’t for losing myself, I wouldn’t have found myself. If it weren’t for new friends, new crowds, bad boys, and bad moms, I wouldn’t have the authority to say, “I am being myself.” I needed to fall down rabbit holes. My world needed to be a little scary. I needed to play with fire. And, I needed people who loved me to question me so that I would question myself.
In Alice in Wonderland, Alice, who has gone through so much change in a single day, says at once, "'Who in the world am I?' Ah, that's the great puzzle!" Rather than fret about the challenge of being herself, she embraces the thrill of it. We would be so lucky to welcome the true identity of the heroine in our own story. I dare say it would be the thrill of a lifetime.
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