Who the F*ck Am I?

In recent years, I’ve struggled on and off with mild dissociation. In my worst moments, days don’t really end, sleeping at night is just a pause in a larger continuation of time. In my better moments, I haven’t a single clue who, exactly, I am. Essentially, I’m in a constant state of identity crisis in varying degrees.

And it’s interesting.

That’s not to say that it’s good, necessarily, but as with all difficult things, there has been a lot of learning to take away from it. December of last year, I was standing on my sister’s bed in her studio apartment crying heavily because I didn’t know what it meant to be me anymore. I didn’t know what I was like when I wasn’t trying to be anything or anyone in particular. I had to walk myself through the basics—you know, the things you cover when you first meet someone. What did I like? What irritated me? What made me excited? Where did I want to be in five years?

A friend of mine from high school, two years my senior, imparted me with some grand wisdom (as is the nature of our relationship. We rarely chat, but when we do, we might as well be back in Ancient Greece with Socrates and Plato). I was pouring over the pain and confusion of not knowing who I was, asking him if maybe he knew, and he responded, “You are Anna Petgrave. Everything after that is a choice you make every day.”

I didn’t know at the time how postmodern this perspective was, but I can’t properly convey how utterly freeing hearing that was. We are not static; if we were, that’d be terrible. There are some core things that can help define us, like our values and our passions and our principles, our morals. But everything else, we can choose. That’s not to suggest that shaping ourselves is ever easy, but it’s absolutely doable. And I would go so far as to say we have an obligation to ourselves to work on bettering ourselves always; ignorance is thinking we are done growing or that we will ever be done growing.

When you don’t really know who you are, or when sometimes you do but you greatly dislike yourself, gaining some perspective on yourself in the world can be frustrating. You can’t really see yourself until you’re seeing the things inside yourself that you wish weren’t there. And if we were static beings, if we never changed, never grew, being in the kind of situation I often find myself would be bleak, to say the least.

For whatever reason, I struggle with making mistakes. To clarify, it’s not that I have a hard time making them—in fact, I’m rather proficient at it (unfortunately). What I struggle with is dealing with myself in the aftermath of making them, particularly unintentional mistakes. When I was maybe 15 or 16 years old, my older sister brought some alcohol to a little Halloween party; we got caught, I heard my dad’s words of disappointment and punishment, and I cried so, so profoundly that my sisters actually mocked me afterwards for how loud and howlish my crying sounded. I felt so awful about having disappointed my dad, about having done something “wrong” that I didn’t even feel worthy enough to give him a hug.

To call that an overreaction would be an understatement.

I tell that story to frame some perspective on how poorly I deal with making mistakes; in my mind, it creates almost a direct correlation with being a bad person. I still work on trying to retrain my response to wrongdoing because we aren’t our mistakes unless we choose to be defined by them. What does this have to do with identity? Well, the experiences we have play a key role in shaping us through the course of our lives. Along with the idea of constant growth, I’ve found a way to forgive myself time and time again, and that’s by being a better person than the one who made those mistakes.

Journaling and reflecting have a variety of benefits (namely a less expensive form of cathartic therapy), but for me, they have also served as remarkable tools for marking change over time. It’s hard to notice change when you’re so involved in the day-to-day reality of yourself. Every now and again, I revisit some of my journals and read through my entries, getting a feel for where I was a year ago, a few months ago, and what have you. And it’s helped validate for me this progress that I am making, not just in becoming someone I like, but in actively becoming… me.

A little over a year ago, after hitting a remarkably low spot in my mental health and nutrition, I wrote an angry entry expressing a desire to be healthy, to feel alive and not like I just exist, to meet my life with energy, not just complacency. Today? I see a therapist and a psychiatrist, I take medication to help me be present and ready for my life, I got glasses (and thankfully they look cute on me), I wear my hearing aids on a daily basis, I eat fruits and vegetables and protein and mostly don’t drink energy drinks anymore. I might not have noticed the improvement as it’s been a daily/weekly affair of pushing myself and struggling to be present and determined, but seeing a year’s worth of progress encourages me with the knowledge that I am capable of making changes and I am capable of being someone I’m happy (or at least happier) with.

Talk of my high school years has come up more recently, particularly because I undertook a project to write out all of the mistakes over the past decade that have been weighing me down (I won't even get into what kind of experience that was). High school Anna had a tough time with a lot of things: body image, social skills, self-esteem, self-control. I remember in my senior year thinking about what I might be like when I’m 24—what I’d like to be like when I’m 24. I’m only (almost) 21 at the moment, but you know what?

High school Anna would be proud of me. She would be so happy to know that this is what her future looks like. I have happy and stable relationships. My relationship with my mother is infinitely better, to the point that we now get sushi and play Scrabble together on a regular basis. My body looks how I want it to look. I run a magazine chapter that I launched from scratch. I have a partially written novella that just needs some TLC but that I feel so much potential in. I haven’t dropped out of college (yet). I’m still alive! And that’s fucking fantastic.

People say that your twenties are full of discovering yourself, full of not totally knowing who you are or what you want. I think that that can go beyond your twenties, can stretch through your whole life. But what’s really important, to me at least, is that I finally know—and believe--that that’s okay. I don’t need to be able to write you a clear-cut description of who I am because I’m Anna Petgrave, and that right there says everything you need to know. I’m not the person I was five years ago, but I’m shaped from that person and her experiences. I’m not the person I’ll be in five years, but she’ll be shaped from who I am now and the work I’m doing to figure out where I’m headed.

It’s okay to be lost. It’s okay to know exactly where you’re going. It’s okay to be heading down one road and suddenly take a sharp left turn down the path to a different destiny. So long as you remember that you are you, and you know that you can be whatever and whoever you want to and choose to be, I think things will be pretty alright.