At the age of 36, I still don’t really know what I wish people would call me. By saying this I mean I do not have a preferred name. You know, like how some people named Elizabeth go by Liz, Lizzie, or Elizabeth? My given name, the name I was born with, is Jennifer. That was the name my mom called me when I was in trouble. Growing up, I was always called Jenny. My parents, family, and friends from high school still call me Jenny. At some point towards the end of college though, I started to go by Jen. Jenny didn’t seem to fit anymore for some reason, but really, Jen didn’t feel right either. Years later though, here I sit known as Jen.
For some reason, my own personality could not overtake the connotations attached to my name. These preconceptions were based on what I saw in other people with the same name. In other words, when I thought about the name Jennifer, Jenny, or Jen, I thought of other people, not myself. So through the years, I took on those characteristics of those people regardless if they felt right or not.
Who is Jennifer, Jenny, and Jen to me?
Oh, Jennifer. Jennifer sounds mature and important. She, as they say, can get it. But she also sounds stuck up and like she is trying too hard, using her full name. Like, who does she think she is, right?
Then there is Jenny. Jenny sounds approachable, casual, and familiar. Jenny is the girl next door who will walk your dog while you are on vacation. But Jenny is also childlike, not to be taken seriously, and she seems a bit lost.
Finally, Jen. Jen is a simple adult. Generic. Easy going. She makes you comfortable. Jen is also boring and forgettable. She doesn’t want to be too much. She doesn’t really have needs and strives to blend in.
Each one means something different to me. And none of them really feel like they describe me. Maybe they describe people that I once was, am pretending to be, or wish I was, but none describe who I really am in my heart and soul.
Problem is, I have no clue who I am in my soul.
From a young age, I was barely a person present in my own life. If someone were making my life movie, I would have a non-speaking role. The supporting characters would be driving the plot. I’m there, along for the ride, following cues and doing what is expected of me. I just did what I thought everyone else was doing. What we all were supposed to be doing.
I only had a vague outline of how my life should go. At the core of it, I thought everyone just followed a checklist. I think of it as the unspoken checklist of life. It goes something like this:
- Graduate high school
- Graduate college
- Work, get a job
- Become financially stable/secure
- Get married
- Buy a house
- Have a baby
When I followed this checklist, it was like autopilot. And when I was on autopilot, parts of me just went dormant. I didn’t need them, so they were forgotten. Each checkbox is a step outlined for you and there is only minor input needed. Yes, you decide what to study at college and who to marry but, you are definitely going to college and getting married when that box needs to be checked. Following the checklist had more of an effect on my mental health than I could imagine. Three life altering things happened to me when I started blindly following the checklist of life.
- I had no reason to discover who I was as a person and what I wanted out of life. So I just drifted through life and, for most of my 20s, did not have a sense of identity.
- I believed that feelings and emotions were completely useless and I strived to not have them. Bad feelings made you feel bad, and joyful feelings would just be taken away, which makes you feel bad. Best to just ignore them when the come up. Being emotional is inconvenient and unwanted with most people. I was 100% convinced that they served no purpose in life.
- When I couldn’t check a box on the list, in the correct order, at the correct time in my life, I would freeze. The roadmap was gone and I had no clue what to do if I couldn’t check a box. Ultimately, the unchecked box could mean only one thing to me: Failure. I lived with a constant feeling of failure. I did not think I just failed but more than I was a failure.
What followed was years of living without living. I went through the motions of going to work at the same job everyday, sleeping, eating, but without feeling connected to anything. The consequences of that were many. Anxiety. Depression. Codependency. People pleasing. Tension. Insomnia. Low self esteem. Isolation. Numbing. Each day I got a tiny bit worse for over more than a decade. Finally, I couldn’t cope with my life as it was any longer and I got serious about my mental health. I was willing to try anything to give me even a little relief from how I felt.
What I wanted was to never feel these horrible feelings again. The therapist and doctors could fix me and then I would be normal and happy. Unfortunately, my therapist informed me that this was not how it worked. Yes, I had a guide, but really, it was me that had to fix me. Not what I wanted to hear at all, but probably what I needed to hear. So, I got to work. I learned coping skills and how I was keeping myself stuck. While I didn’t want to do the work (I was so tired of everything!), no one else could have saved me. I had to save myself and I finally after many sessions, wanted to. I wanted to be my savior. So I worked at it when it was hard, when it was uncomfortable, and when I wanted to quit. I kept going. That was over four years ago and I am still working on it.
Yep, I am still working on it, but you know what I found out? For me, I don’t think the work will end.
At the beginning, it was HARD. It felt like I was drowning in an ocean without any sense of direction. Confusion consumed me and I was in a state of panic. After some treatment, I could finally see which direction was up. I was drowning but could see where to go for air.
The progress to the surface feels slow, but when you were stuck for so long, any progress is a victory. After what feels like forever, you reach air. You know what to do for your mental health and can tread water. Cautious optimism.
At this point, I thought I was good. I was so good. I had been feeling good and trying to figure out who I am slowly, but consistently. Then one day I started to feel the darkness I had lived in for so long creep back into my life. Trying to cope with that darkness again, I became frantic trying to get rid of that horrible feeling. I took steps backward. So many steps backward. And you know what? I wanted to sit down and just stay there. All of the hard work I did to come back from the depths was for nothing. It didn’t seem fair. This was not supposed to happen anymore.
Thing was, I couldn’t stay stuck anymore. At least, not for very long. I knew what breathing felt like and I could not let myself suffocate like that again. Reluctantly, I did the work, and once again, I reached the surface. Still, to this day, I go through this cycle. I don’t go quite so deep anymore and it is easier to stay at the surface, but this is probably something I will have to keep an eye on the rest of my life.
In order to find out who I am, I have to face that darkness. For so many years I ran from anything that felt bad or too strong. Now, I must get curious about my emotions because they are the clues. Emotions point me towards who I am and what I want. The path to happiness goes straight through all the sadness, heartbreak, and terrible feelings I ignored in my life. I have decided to dive in and figure out what I have been frantically avoiding and numbing. There’s no going back to how I lived before and the way forward is not easy, but I am determined to find peace in who I really am. Here goes everything.