“Identity is always in the making and never made.”
– Quote from an episode of National Geographic
At 16, when I moved back in with my folks after a 6-month stint in Virginia, I was thankful for sitting back and having some semblance of a teenage-hood again. I didn’t have to work to pay my bills (Dad would pay them), and I didn’t have to worry about rent or food or toiletries (I could just add my desires to Mom’s shopping list). Plus, there was a built-in social network within my claimed territory. I didn’t have to prove to anyone who I was or what I was about. It was pure hedonistic ignorance. It was bliss.
But I also had a lot of pent up rage and aggression swelling within my pumped fists, and there were a lot of fights and plain acts of violence. I challenged people with a cold glare and an air of superiority, and when that didn’t work, I pushed people down flights of stairs and poked at their pride. I needed to release a tension within my shoulders. I needed attention. I needed to feel in control and powerful.
At 18, after spending the greater part of a year on the road, I loathed coming back to Mom and Dad’s rules. Their incessant bitching and nagging about dishes and sweeping and marital problems and financial problems killed my buzz. I was on a Kerouac-ian high. I wanted to explore life – not be stuck in some drab and mundane existence. I moved in with a 30-something boyfriend who was making six figures and had a midtown apartment. We played house for almost a year, bought curtains together and regularly sauntered through Bed, Bath & Beyond on Sunday afternoons.
By the time I was 19, I’d accepted 2 marriage proposals even though I hadn’t taken either of them seriously. One was from a guy that I dated on and off from age 13 to age 20. The other was the Bad, Bath & Beyond guy. BB&B guy broke my heart on the week before my 20th birthday. I’d introduced him to old friends in Philadelphia, and he’d claimed that a “new side of me” had emerged, a side he “couldn’t see being the mother of his kids.”
I moved back in with Mom and Dad and stopped resisting the role of prodigal daughter. Not only did I take on responsibility, but I took on the brunt of it. The emotional well-being of the household and each of its members rested squarely on my then-morally bankrupt shoulders. Inside the house, I was handling my parents’ problems, helping them deal, and bringing up my teenage brother. Outside of the house, I was having sex in public, drinking grown men under tables, and consequently spending many nights in ERs, getting my stomach pumped. There were drug parties, parties with drugs, and booze fests galore. But I was a model student and daughter, and it didn’t matter to me that I used people to feel above it all.
By the time I was 21, I was all boozed out. It was also around this time that I started to really resent my parents. Sober and wanting closure, I started to really dig deep, and I asked myself questions I’d previously been to afraid to know the answers to. Who was I? Why was I that person? Did I like myself? Did I have any control over who I’d become? Could I change? I took philosophy, sociology, and psychology classes so that I could couch my own conclusions in academic terms. I didn’t want to face the possibility that my results weren’t real.
I discovered that most of my life was spent either running away from my family’s dysfunction or taking responsibility for my family’s problems. I’d never really had a chance to grow up. In the blink of a heavily mascaraed eye, I went from pigtails and bubbles to sex and paying bills. And it sucks, this truth. It sucks that I had to fake my lack of innocence for so long, that I had to learn to be chameleon-like in my ways, that I felt it necessary to seek out better ways to dupe and manipulate and lie and pretend. It sucks that I’m good at being bad.
I didn’t like who I’d become. So I changed. Drastically. Gone were the booze fests and binges, out were most of the one night stands and sexcapades. In order to compensate for being a hard-as-nails-bitch, I became a mushy pushover. I bent over backwards so that people felt comfortable around me. I changed my approach to social interaction and I altered my life goals.
It was hard, this constant push and pull between the old me and the new me. It’d been so easy to lie and fake my way into everyone’s good graces; it’d been so natural for me to find loopholes to live in. The straight and narrow was harder than I could imagine – especially because I didn’t know where to step or how to step. I just knew that I wanted this. I wanted to know unequivocally that I’m a good person. I wanted to really try to not be a shitbag.
So I worked on myself. A lot. I changed my circle of friends. I allowed myself to become absorbed in aspects of life that I’d never explored: politics, activism, looking for a potential long-term mate. I consciously surrounded myself with good people, true people, and real people.
Every now and again, when I feel the tingles of the old life coming back, I talk to a former BFF and reminisce about old times, or lower myself into the viper den of cronies from yore and see if I can still handle the sting, or step into a new snake pit. I’ll always need a challenge. I’ll always want to know that I can succeed at something that is altogether unconventional. And fuck it if this means that I never really changed at all. It works for me.