It’s June 2014 and I’ve just turned 21. Happy Birthday, me. Happy You-Made-It-21-Years. Happy You-Haven’t-Been-Happy-Since-April. The cards say Here’s to 21 More. Celebrate! Buy yourself something nice! The cards say Finally! At Last!
It’s June 2014 and I am 21. It’s 2 AM and finally, at last, everyone has gone to bed. I’m not in bed. I am awake. There’s cake in the kitchen and beer bottles in the sink. There are balloons which are lit from the inside. I’m crying in the dark and I’m thinking that the only beautiful and alright thing in the world are these balloons with LED lights inside. I should go to sleep, I think. Out loud I say “I don’t want to be here anymore. I don’t know who I am.” I keep saying this until I fall asleep. It’ll be two more years before I stop saying it; before it stops being true.
Becoming yourself is hard. In theory it’s easy. You do it by looking very closely at the person that you’ve been, digging out bad behaviors by the root and by letting go of anything that holds you back. It’s hard because the You of Before will make a fuss, it won’t give itself up easy. It has gotten used to not doing the good and terrifying things that make life extraordinary. It wants to stay put, it wants to stay shadowed and safe and out of sight. Even once you’ve decided that you want to be different, want to be braver and more yourself, it doesn’t happen at once.
You take the first few steps and think you’ll just keep going like that until it’s done and you’re changed and everything’s better and you feel whole. But it’s not like that. You take a step, you pause. You agonize, try to go back the way you came–find the road blocked, find in some cases it’s gone completely and ahead is something you can’t yet contemplate going towards. You hang stricken in empty space, between states, between the way you’ve been and the way you’re going to be. Between almost-happy-but-not-quite-happy and beyond, to somewhere great, somewhere where it’s not necessary to ask Is this it? Is this all there is?
It’s like in werewolf movies, one self is not big enough to hold the other, more monstrous self. In your case it’s not a monster, but a bigger and more lethal you that comes bursting out of its old way of being. Don’t be afraid of this. It’s okay to be lethal in the ways you fight for your life. Be lethal in your demands for joy, respect, progress. Step out of what is used up and useless, be lethal and unmoved in your certainty that there is peace ahead. But how to get there?
By seeking your people
The people we start with are rarely the people we end with. Our first friends are almost accidental. It doesn’t take much. Oh you like the same soup as me? Well then it’s decided, we will be friends forever. As adults you need more than soup. Ask yourself these questions about the people who are in your life: Do they make you feel safe? Do you feel able to show all parts of yourself to them? Do they feel like your people? If yes, then breathe easier. Lucky you. If no, then why?
By slowing down
We end up in so many shitty situations by not thinking things through, by not recognizing the pull of our own toxic behaviors or the tell-tale signs that someone is bad news and won’t to leave us better than when they found us. Take a minute. Follow the map back. In the past you did this, then this, then this, and ended up here, without anything. Nod like you’ve discovered something, even if you’re just as confused. Decide in the future to buy a new map, and mark with an X places where you are celebrated. Where you’re safe and happy and strong. These are the places most worth visiting. Go to them as often as possible.
By learning to be by yourself and for yourself
It seemed clear growing up that the only way to experience love was to surrender to it. Put up your hands and step off the edge. Be consumed, or else you’re not doing it right. Be captured, or else what’s the point? Be eaten whole by it. Two life changing heartbreaks down the line and I’m starting to think it isn’t true. Because good love’s not a dinosaur. It’s an exchange of light, it’s two people doing right by one another again and again and again until the last time they speak. That’s what I think anyway and I’ve seen at least two cartoons on the subject.
By seeing the funny side
It’s so dumb being a person. I say this all the time. To myself, to my friends, to the dogs I meet at the dog park where I specifically go to meet dogs. I say Hello little dog let me tell you something about being a person: It’s dumb. And then I kiss them on their dog heads and go on with my day. Point is: it’s not so serious as everyone is going on about. So what I have a body? That’s none of your business. This is my blood and I’ll feel however I want about it. So what I spent two years wanting to die? I also spent two years thinking I’d met Vin Diesel at the airport. Turns out it was just a very bald and muscular civilian. We all make mistakes all the time.
By letting go, as slowly as you need
Letting go does not mean forgetting, or healing completely. It may mean working very very hard to take a single step away from trauma (or grief, or resentment). It may mean putting down one unlikely dream and picking up another–this time one that is still warm with potential. It may mean letting go of people you’ve grown out of, ideas that don’t make sense to you anymore. It may mean simply saying I don’t think I want eggs for breakfast today. I actually hate eggs and I’m a vegan now. Because holding on to what doesn’t nourish you is like wearing an old pair of shoes that don’t fit and are full of rocks. They’re slowing you down. So take them off. Open yourself up to being happy and brave and Good Enough. Step into the roller-skates of self-belief, baby.
By being better
You cannot be a better, gentler you until you start doing better, gentler things. I don’t mean you have to brush a unicorn’s hair or tuck a snake into bed. But you do have to tread more lightly through your life. You have to make calm and brave decisions about what you would like to happen and you have to take the appropriate actions to make those things most likely. Life is a choose-your-own-adventure. Will I be something? Answer yes. Will I end up where I’m supposed to be? Answer yes again, with as much conviction as you can manage. Will I be happy? Answer yes for the last time, as loudly as possible. But it’s haaaaaard. I know. But not forever. It will be easier. Eventually you’ll forget the way it was–the old ache of it; your heart quiet in its bed, your dreams dragging behind you like a tattered parachute. It will be good. You will be good.
A few weekends ago I turned 23. I still have bad days. Old fears appear and I’m not always graceful in the way I deal with them. But I’m happy and I’m getting happier. I’m doing what I want to be doing. It’s enough. I know the secret of it now, what it comes down to at the root: To become yourself you must give up yourself.
So give it up. Go get your life.
For more thoughts on Becoming, follow Beth on Twitter.
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