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How It Feels To Shed Your Skin

Being a young and mobile person is a bit like having a never-ending case of whiplash.

I don’t have a single identity or home or social circle; I have many, and I’m constantly leaving one for another and feeling like the skin that has been grafted onto my preexisting skin is being ripped off and the resulting wound is replaced with another.

There is my life at school, which is the busiest and most visibly meaningful (but actually probably the emptiest) life of them all. There is who I am with my family in Ohio, and who I am when I visit my intended future home, New York City. I am someone else entirely apart from all these people with my long-distance partner (first one, then another) when one of us is visiting the other.

Leaving each of these is like heartbreak. At that moment it feels like nothing is deeper and truer than who I am in this place, with these people, at this point in time. I tell myself over and over that once I get to my destination I will become that person and it’ll feel normal again, but no amount of telling it makes it feel true. It is always like leaving myself and becoming someone else, someone I don’t want to be. And upon arriving I briefly experience the sickening feeling of having become someone I dreaded becoming just a few short hours before, across a few state lines or perhaps a two-hour flight away. That feeling squeezes me by the throat and then finally slinks away and I grow comfortable and complacent in my new (old?) skin.

Shortly before leaving I often grow aloof and distant from the people I’m with, and this breaks my heart even more. And probably theirs. It pains me, but it seems better than letting myself stay close for those final hours, which would mean letting them see me collapse in tears as I imagine being torn away from them by whichever car, bus, train, or plane is doing it this time.

There is a certain courage that you need to let someone wipe your tears away, and it is a courage I rarely have these days.

The reason I need courage is because there is so much to be afraid of. People misread the particular mix of emotions I feel when I’m leaving and assume that I must be pathologically attached to them or confused about where I “belong” (why the hell do I hate Ohio so much but invariably lose control of myself when leaving it?). The truth is, yes, I get very attached to people. But I don’t think there’s anything pathological about the way in which I get attached. I think the difference between me and people who aren’t depressed is that, sometimes, the way you keep from being depressed is by choosing not to acknowledge the enormous amounts of pain and pleasure that others can give to you, and living as though you are truly independent.

Whose way is better? I can’t say, but I know that I’m incapable of ignoring the bonds between myself and the people I love for the few hours it takes for me to leave. And because I can’t ignore them, having to sever them over and over and then splice them back up and sever them again, every couple of months, feels like the worst thing in the world.

Someone pointed out to me recently that the same theme keeps coming up whenever I tell the story of my life, how I came to be so depressed, and how I eventually (mostly) recovered. That theme is disconnection. My worst misery is when I feel disconnected from people, society, and life itself. It’s when I feel misunderstood by the people close to me or when I feel like an outsider (this happens often to me; if you read my previous post you can see a little snippet of it). Or when I feel like I just don’t understand the people around me and why we can’t seem to agree on anything, or when I feel like I have no traditions to give shape to my life, or when I feel like I’m not “fully” any of the things that I think I am–feminist, atheist, Jew, Russian, Israeli, woman, student, activist.

(In my better moments, I realize that, well, of course I’m not “fully” any of these things. Nobody can possibly fit some hypothetical Aristotelian prototype of any of these things. The very nature of such identities is that the pressure to belong and conform is significant and that we will always wonder if we’re really measuring up to what we’re “supposed” to be.)

On the other hand, the greatest happiness I’ve ever known is feeling connected to people and ideas and places. It’s the feeling I had at Skepticon. It’s reading a brilliant book or article and feeling completely in sync with the author. It’s holding someone I love close. It’s discovering that my partner and I both hate Michael Cera and love Los Campesinos! and agree on virtually every ethical and political issue that we care about.

Given this, it’s not very surprising that I have such difficulty with transitions. Of course, everything is ultimately temporary and change is part of life for everyone, but this much temporariness and this much change is just too much. That whiplashy feeling I get every time I have to switch identities and hop across state lines is a sign that someone like me just isn’t made for this lifestyle.

I have strategies to help me cope with it, of course. I always carry things from one place to another to help me remember who I am when I’m somewhere else. I have stacks of notebooks from other times. I almost never recall old memories.

Mostly, though, I write. Telling you this right now is the only thing that’s helping.

A while ago, I wrote that the happiest day of my life up until that point had been my older brother’s wedding, because I got to spend a whole day focusing entirely on other people and not on myself. My new sister-in-law read it and replied that she felt much like I did when I was younger and that once you grow a bit older and start to settle down, it gets easier. Not necessarily because Change Is Bad, but because people like me are at a stage in our lives where we are basically required to focus on nothing but ourselves. Our education, our needs, our desires, our constant criss-crossing of the country in search of opportunities. Once you’re able to turn that focus outwards at other people, that feeling of disconnect subsides and real, lasting happiness–not the kind you might get from parties or straight As–can take its place.

I hope she’s right. I hope that after I’ve finished all of my degrees and chosen a city to live in, life will stop jerking me around like this every few months. I hope that I can finally build a network of friends and acquaintances that will be more or less stable. I hope that the people I spend time with will have known me for longer than a few months. I hope that my work will feel more meaningful than my schooling.

I hope, because tomorrow I will rip myself out of one skin and shoddily sew myself into another, and the person I am right now, as I write this, will already be just a distant memory.

Comments

  1. says

    Crazy. Not saying you’re crazy, just the comparison to my life.

    I was born ~30 miles away from where I currently live. Outside of three semesters at a college I learned to hate, I’ve been in the same general metropolitan area. The longer I live here, the more I discover–both the local secrets I’ve overlooked and the rest of the world I have yet to experience.

    When I graduate in May, I’m not sure what to do. Perhaps I’ll have a full time job in a distant locale. Perhaps I’ll be staying right where I am. Needless to say, I’m freaking the fuck out.

    I can’t imagine having multiple homes like you do. Keep up the awesome. I don’t have much to contribute past that.

    • says

      Thanks, Kevin. :)

      Likewise I can’t imagine what it’s like to spend one’s life in the same place. I was born thousands of miles away from where I live now and my parents were born even more thousands of miles away.

      Best of luck after graduation. I’m sure you’ll find what you’re looking for. :)

    • Aunolin says

      Kevin,

      You’re not the only one who’s freaking the fuck out. I’m trying to figure out how to support myself financially next year while living with somebody else and while working towards long-term career goals, despite having very little work experience and no idea what it’s like not to be in school.

      Which is not to complain. Just to tell you that you’re not alone. (Okay maybe it was a little bit to complain)

      DFTBA,
      Robert

  2. thewhorepoet says

    Much sympathy with the identity-switching. For me, it did get easier when I moved to my chosen city and settled in for a few years. Now I have a “normal me” who isn’t closeted about my queerness or sex work or mental illness or atheism, and the people in my day-to-day life accept (and apparently like!) normal-me. I feel at home in my life.

    However, it has become much harder to visit my family in my former home state. Where I used to switch into family-mode easily, I find it more and more difficult to do so, and it’s more costly to my mental health. I love my family fiercely, but avoid seeing them. If I spend too long in my former home, I feel myself hunching in, trying to prune away my unacceptable features. Allowing myself unfettered growth in my chosen home has let me become more of what I want, but I’m too big for my old skin.

    • says

      That second paragraph sounds very familiar to me. I also find myself slipping into my former self when I’m back at my childhood home. I still go to see my family, but I have to prepare myself mentally for what happens when I do.

  3. says

    This reminds me a bit of myself when I was younger – I had three distinct groups of friends, all of whom had radically different value-sets and social cultures (one was very street-rugged, one was militant, and one was beatnik/Monkees/Miami Vice/INXS/Hypercolor-shirt-wearing). For some reason, I really felt like I identified with all of them, and, although I would never have even introduced them to each other, I drifted in and out of all of them with ease. But I always wondered which of them, if I had to choose, I’d cast my lots with when it came down to it.

    Ultimately I realized I didn’t really fit in with any of them, but after introspecting on it for years, I found that the reason I had done it in the first place was because I really hadn’t ever identified who I wanted to be, so I basically just found groups I could fit in with. I had no solid identity of my own. It doesn’t sound like you have that problem (I was much younger then than you are now) but I don’t know you so I can’t make that assessment – I can only compare the similarities between your story and mine.

    I guess my development was a bit slow and it took me years to develop my own solid identity – and at this point it’s solid enough that anyone who knows me today might be quite surprised to even read what I’ve written here – but once I did I found that I didn’t have to find groups to float in and out of. I became the group. The sort of social connections I desire now tend to gravitate toward me. Those I don’t, tend to stay away. It’s a nice arrangement.

    Formulating this self-image and forging the resulting identity is not an easy process nor do I have any advice to offer on how to accomplish it. It’s one of those things that just needs to be ground out through trial and error I suppse. But knowing where the finish line lies makes running the race just a bit less daunting.

    Question – Why “partner”? Why not “girlfriend”?

    • says

      Thanks for sharing!

      I think for me it’s more a question of place and “situation” than of different social groups; although I do have to be a very different person with my family than I am with my school friends than I am with my internet friends than I am with my partner, the difficulty always lies in the fact that I’m physically leaving one person/group and not seeing them again for a long time. If they were all in the same place and I merely had to be someone a bit different depending on who I was with at the moment, it would be easier, I think.

      I’m very much the way you say you are now–people gravitate towards me who want to be involved with me in some way, and writing makes that much easier (most of my friends read this blog before they even knew me).

      Re: “partner,” the reason I don’t say “girlfriend” is because my partner is male. :P I prefer that term because I feel like using it helps break down the gendered way we talk about relationships. There’s no reason why the word for “person I’m in a relationship with” needs to have a gender assigned to it, just like there’s no gender assigned to the word “friend.” When I’m around people who would probably be confused by the word “partner” I generally use “boyfriend” instead since I’m not that particular about it. I hope that answers your question!

      • says

        “Re: “partner,” the reason I don’t say “girlfriend” is because my partner is male.”

        Ha! You got me! :)

        “There’s no reason why the word for “person I’m in a relationship with” needs to have a gender assigned to it, just like there’s no gender assigned to the word “friend.”

        That’s true… although I have heard women speak of their “girlfriends” (platonic) before. I guess it just has information-value more than anything else.

        My brother speaks of his “partner” for reasons that, to me, are obvious… gay males are still far more stigmatized in today’s culture than gay females. So I guess for him it makes sense. And you’re not the only blogger here to use the term either… I just have never asked the question before and I had always wondered.

        Oh, well… Good luck in your “skin”. There’s no doubt in my mind you’ll have those feelings negotiated before long. I think they are just by-products of becoming who we are.

        • Aunolin says

          Aforementioned partner here:
          “I prefer that term because I feel like using it helps break down the gendered way we talk about relationships.” I agree, which is a symptom of why I have chosen our Professional Fun-Ruiner to be my partner in the first place ^_^

          I also prefer the term “partner” to “[diminutive noun for gender]friend” because it denotes more of an active role in mutual support for and long-term commitment to each other. Partners work together, but a boyfriend or girlfriend is just kind of…”had”?

          As for the concern for information value re: gender, I also generally use a gendered pronoun in the same sentence or paragraph that makes it clear that Miriam is female.

          Thanks for asking, kacyray!

          • says

            I also prefer the term “partner” to “[diminutive noun for gender]friend” because it denotes more of an active role in mutual support for and long-term commitment to each other. Partners work together, but a boyfriend or girlfriend is just kind of…”had”?

            I didn’t even think of that, but I agree. :)

  4. Hunt says

    It kind of sounds like if you magnified that sentiment by about a factor of ten (which I really don’t recommend), you would be in my camp, that is agoraphobia. I was actually entirely housebound for one half a year. It seems lie agoraphobia is the epitome of connecting your own identity with place and or people. Often, the agoraphobe (me) can travel, so long as it’s with a familiar person, a “safe” person, in other words, with a lifeline to person and place. I’ve always been in awe of those people who can pull up stakes, travel extensively, and with apparent ease, ground themselves wherever they might find themselves. It’s possible I’m misreading the intention of your post entirely. What do you think about this? As you probably know, agoraphobia is anxiety based, and while anxiety and depression share many attributes, I think what you describe here is more anxiety driven than depressive. The armchair diagnosis for most of this, and neurosis in general, would be “you’re thinking about it too much,” which may be true, but it’s hard to translate that into any type of therapeutic. It’s true, though, that the very same perceptions that might feed anxiety or depression can be used to observe life in general, and some people are reluctant to give them up. I know this has been very true for me. But now I’m rambling, so I will end.