One million deaths.
When in the inescapable throws of intense angst and desolation, often prompted by routine over-thinking and deep fears regarding my future, I find that a deep clean of one’s room can be extremely helpful in signalling a mental reset alongside the physical organisation. That’s a nifty little life hack for you. You’re welcome.
My most recent room-project was, at its core, prompted by the continual Covid lockdown. More evidently, however, it was a consequence of my newfound temper-cocktail of equal-parts lethargy and anxiety (fun!) and included (for maybe only the second or third time in my life) a deep excavation of old boxes and years-untouched drawers, a dissecting and sorting of the neglected corners; the places that don’t have to actually be clean in order to make a space look clean.
It was in the midst of my personal item archaeological dig that I stumbled upon a treasure trove of my old journals. At first, I was excited to have the opportunity to see what my younger self was interested in, how she thought, what she wrote. As I cracked open the many gaudy notebook covers and flipped past the pretentious ‘opening’ pages (between the ages of five-twelve I very unironically wrote an introduction segment to my journals in case they were ever published, or at least, read by someone important), I expected to feel some sense of darling nostalgia and understanding of self. As though reading the inner ramblings of a seven-year-old me would be like looking at the first wooden figure in the Russian doll set that is my personal development. I would be seeing myself, just smaller. It would be cute, interesting. It was, after all, just me, minus the throws of teenagedom and relative adulthood. What I found instead, in the middle of my pink Moomin journals and my countless Composition Notebooks, was absolute terror. I recognised nothing of myself in the many pages. I had no idea who the hell had written all of this.
Flipping through my collection of school journals, I found that many were filled with assignments I am proud of even now. For example, the feminist in me lauds my collection of essays on the role of women in Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, and another on their underrated contributions to the American Revolution. Pages like this are somewhat sensical reflections of my personality to date; just my personality on a shrunken-down and pre-pubescent scale, the origin stories of many tenets of my internal life. But it was the excited and expectant opening of the personal journals and diaries that horrified me immediately.
They were inundated with thoughts and subject matters that were so vapid, so superficial, and sometimes even hateful, that if my brain had a tongue it would have tasted as sour as battery acid once I closed all of them.
On one page in 2010, I wrote a list bluntly titled “Why I’m Ugly”, filled with my features I found least conventionally attractive (I won’t even begin to validate these thoughts by listing them for you here). Its loopy lettering mirrored another page proudly titled “Why It Could Be Worse”, featuring a list of my features that I found vaguely tolerable, or at least, features I found decent enough for public consumption and approval. I wish this was hyperbole.
Even though I still remain insecure about certain aspects of myself, I despise the idea that I gave in to verbalising such darkness on a piece of paper; that I, at such a young age, so callously degraded myself over a value system invented by misogyny and its many byproducts.
Another diary entry from 2011 labels a girl in my school a “slut”, when truthfully I was jealous of her beauty and energy. I was an awkwardly sized, naturally mopey, non-risk-taking 11-year-old who wore capris and bright orange Toms, and she was a radiant and adventurous 13-year-old who everyone loved to be around. I like to think of myself as someone who not only believes that the term ‘slut’ is useless because ultimately who cares who does what with their sex life, but I also like to think of myself as someone who would never weaponise a term as such in order to demean someone. And yet here I was, doing it. I recorded it in writing, prepped with an intro for any eyes to see. Shameless.
Despite the fact that I am writing about this fairly candidly, as well as the fact that all of this seems like ancient history, I am actually genuinely ashamed to read entries like these, and embarrassed to admit to it. I feel like I’ve come to judgement day, and my heart is so much heavier than the feather it’s being weighed against that it has crushed the marble floor beneath the heavenly scale and punched through the earth’s crust, like a rubber band snapping to a resting place in Hell.
At first I rationalised with myself. I wasn’t always that judgemental or cold, right? I have entries from 2008 and 2009 that seem introspective and sweet, ones that make me proud of the young child I was. My mother has told me that I always had a big heart. This wasn’t who I was, I was sure of it. I was a sweet child! Artistic, emotional, empathetic, the whole shebang! I just must have been very lost when I wrote those things. Or lying?
But it was too late.
Some mirrors had cracked and the smoke had cleared and I realised that despite my beliefs, I have not been growing linearly. I am not a human Expandable Water Toy- I have not grown into myself from something identical to that, just smaller.
In fact, when I truly think about it, I have undergone rapid metamorphosis, whiplash-inducing shifts, I have changed colours and tunes and beliefs because a butterfly flapped its wings or because someone at the bus stop ate an egg sandwich. I can now remember all the different hats I have worn over time and how they no longer can fit onto my overgrown cranium. I began to remember all the people, clothes, emotions, and traits that no longer fit me, ones that I shed behind years ago and the ones that I forgot I did.
Even more shiver-inducing is the idea that people met me when I organically thought things I now despise. When I was writing lists of my ugliest features and degrading other women. To them, I am that girl they met. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve changed. If they’re not around to see it, I am off existing somewhere – a vestigial self – alive in memory, spewing wonky values and vapid thought-processes.
I sat on the edge of my bed, surrounded by memorabilia boxes of horror, and with a scrunched face of disgust wondered:
Are these ugly past pieces of me, still me? Are they thrashing against the upper-crust of my presentation of self? Barring foamy teeth, resentful of my (apparently new) moral code, crying hate into my irises?
And what of the good pieces of me that I no longer contain? The aforementioned hats I can’t fit? Are they still part of me?
If I don’t know the history of my identity as intimately as I once thought I did, then how can I ever begin to understand who I am right now? And if I have changed as much as I am beginning to think, how many different people have I been?
In eighth grade one of my very best friends was a musical theatre adoring, Crocs wearing, extremely linguistically adept and frightfully intelligent boy named Avi. My first feelings related to Avi were felt years prior, and they were ones of intense jealousy. It was the first day of sixth grade and without missing a beat, he defined the word ‘plumage’ for our class before the teacher could. I remember the hot piping rage hitting my forehead after I had been gearing up to falsely nod to the teacher’s “do you all know what this word means?”, when all the while, the new kid’s vocabulary was just waiting to blow my intelligence out of the Harkness Table. I immediately decided that him and his Mickey Mouse sweater were not my friend.
Shortly after, however, this naive jealousy would transform into utter admiration and adoration, into a true and beautiful friendship that would be the root of how I conduct myself in many of my friendships to this date.
Avi and I were both what was considered ‘old souls’. Even at our young age of 11 we would casually discuss Patti Lupone’s rendition of “Rose’s Turn”, the dangers of prescription medication (he was writing a musical about that in his free time), body image, various romantic fantasies, the alleged pregnancy of our science teacher, our shared love of Doctor Who. We were both artists at heart, overly dramatic, both sort of tortured with the term ‘gifted child’, both feeling mentally over-developed and very physically under-developed, like some weird tall toddlers shoved into a crowd of attractive peers. Eventually we were spending almost every weekend together, sitting on his pastry-dough soft couch, watching David Tennant swing around his blue telephone booth space ship (I am babying those of you who don’t know that it’s called a TARDIS) eating whipped cream from the can and theorising if his family vet had fat-shamed his diabetic cat.
Avi and I seemed to get one another on some levels that we didn’t get other people. He spoke to a piece of me that was a muffled seed when we first met, his words blooming it into a pillar of my personality by the time we both graduated. When we went our separate ways for high school, I remember crying and hugging one another, promising each other that we’d go to university together, and if not, that we’d live in some big city afterwards. I’d be a therapist turned actress when I was cast as the lead in whatever hilarious and deliciously dark original musical he had made, and even though he was an world-renowned author, we’d record a Holiday Seasons album together that would go Platinum.
In high school, I missed having Avi by my side, playing MASH on open notebooks, talking leaned up against his mother’s cabinet full of Slim-Fast, roaming around various grocery stores hunting for pre-packaged Starbucks lattes.
We saw each other once in our first year of highschool, and though something felt different, I wept happily on the drive home. We will do it again, I falsely promised myself over and over again, a whispering chant to preserve something I already knew was fading. I had stopped watching Doctor Who, he stopped drinking caffeine, I didn’t want to live in New York, we both had new and interesting friends, he had trashed his script, and we had drained our grape memories by reminiscing on them so many times they were now mere raisins.
By second year, we stumbled through some perfectly pleasant text conversations, and then like a corpse going cold, some painfully stiff ones.
Still, I texted him every year on his birthday.
Until one year,
I once found an old home video of myself standing in front of a fake Christmas tree in the Netherlands, wearing Mary Jane shoes and a pink baby-doll dress, singing softly to ‘When Christmas Comes to Town’ from the iconic and incredible animated film The Polar Express. When the song comes to a close, I bow my blindingly blonde head as my father from behind the camera says a thickly accented “Good job”, and my mother’s laughter peals in the background.
“What do you want to be when you grow up, Jade?” She asks, her voice twinkling from the Pinot Grigio.
Dramatically, my six year old self flips her hair and cheekily smiles straight into the lens.
“I want to be rich, famous, and a star”.
The room erupts into laughter.
I don’t think I’d ever dream of saying something like that these days. It seems almost surreal. Most of my friends don’t think of me as someone musical and I certainly don’t have the same glamorised notion of what it is to be ‘a star’ in my head anymore.
Around that age (and until I was twelve) I dreamt of getting married in the backyard of my childhood home. I would wear a simple yet elegant white dress, the bodice beaded with pearls. Tea candles would float in the pool and fairy lights would dot the various fruit trees. My husband would be tall, confident, handsome. A people person. I would look like a medieval Audrey Hepburn.
By the time I had reached highschool, my dream of being a musician had faded into what I thought was a love of psychology. This coupled nicely with the teenage-hormone induced self-consciousness, and my new softer-spoken vibe. I was now fit for something more quiet, something more serious, something more emotional. I would fantasize of having three kids and an office of my own. Enough money for a big house and to cover travel expenses.
When I was between 16 and 17, being a high-school senior gave me confidence, and success in my extracurriculars made me feel focused, intelligent even. Suddenly I was dreaming of politics or diplomacy, of international law, of being a campaign manager in DC, of clicking around on red brick in white collared shirts and long pinstripe trousers, with a cell-phone that doesn’t stop buzzing. Conventional success. Maybe a place on some Forbes list. My idols were Simone de Beauvoir and Michelle Obama. I realised I didn’t want to ever legally get married- at least not without some persuasion. There would certainly be no romantic and soft-lit ceremony.
One of my dreams right now is to buy some cabin somewhere and to make pottery and write and stay fairly uninvolved with the world. Another is to write a ground-breaking ethnography. Another is to live in the Hague and work for the ICC. It used to be ‘direct a film’ before.
I often say I have the heart of a socialist trapped in the body of a capitalist.
It’s been the opposite before.
I think the concept of falling in love with someone in a matter of a few days is idiotic. I also think maybe I’ve sort of done it before.
I still cry every time I watch Roman Holiday.
After doing some reading about personality, the way in which it changes over time, and how we understand it, I came away with a conclusion that I probably could have simply self-intuited and spared myself hours spent rifling through JSTOR:
Sometimes it changes, sometimes it doesn’t. It changes in some ways, it doesn’t change in others. There is no panacea of an answer.
How very philosophical.
In my original version of this article, I actually broke down the psychological side of personality (as though I have that authority), and explained the various theories on its development through and influence on the lives people lead.
But it was boring. And pointless. So I have deleted that section.
What I will say is that I was left reeling in my own existentialist space upon reading something said by Rodica Damian of the University of Houston. Damian believes that recent studies on personality changes could help in preserving long-term relationships. She believes that, when one partner expects another to be the same person they once were many years ago, they could be actively poisoning their relationship. Instead, they should watch for personality changes in their partner, adjust to them, and embrace them.
I shiver reading that even now. I admit, every time I see someone that I haven’t seen for years, I feel tongue-tied and dizzy in the head as I try to order the carousel of identities pressing against my skull on constant rotation. Who was I back then? I, if anything, am a people-pleaser. I don’t want to disappoint their memory or their expectation of who I should be based on who I was to them.
Knowing that, I wonder how many relationships of mine have fizzled because I didn’t present a stagnant self to them? How many people remember me and would explain me in ways I would never consider accurate to who I am today? And how many of those descriptions and memories are accurate to the person I was when we were in each other’s lives?
I can’t trust my own perception of myself.
I feel frozen when I think about the fact that this doesn’t just apply to big yearly changes. I could be in a sour mood one moment, speak curtly to someone I don’t know, and forever their idea of me is dictated by a personality trait I don’t think represents me. That becomes a vestigial version of myself, one that is born off of me and is shed from me almost simultaneously.
And that is when I realise that while I have lived for 20 years,
It’s as though I have died a million times.
In high school, a rumor went around that I was a witch. Well, it wasn’t as much a rumor as something like the truth. At the time I was participating in many occult-y beliefs and traditions and I basically identified as Wiccan Lite™.
Mind you, I went to a Catholic high school, so this rumor was basically a large and sinful target on my back (or the gasoline soaked wooden stake?), and while I am a generally conflict-avoidant person who doesn’t like to cause controversy, the rumor put me in a state of ultimate bliss. Because despite the drama (Godless witches who also participate in musical theatre are just not the favourite archetype for catholic conservatives to befriend) what mattered more to me was feeling like I had control over who I was, and how others perceived me.
Between the ages of fifteen-seventeen, I knew what my distant peers expected or even wanted me to be, and I played the part perfectly because, ultimately, it suited me well. I was musical, I had long (maybe too long) hair, I exclusively wore dark flowing floral patterned trousers, I draped gemstones around my neck, I didn’t speak much to people I didn’t know well, I read people’s auras if they asked… I was a generally okay and fairly forgettable sort of mysterious flowing figure who people thought? maybe? practiced? Satanism??? or something?
I grew confident in this identity. It turns out that when you feel like your personality is brandable and compact, something you can sell samples of to passerbys by having them simply see your hippy-dippy clothes and soft figure, you feel safe in the arms of the world. It feels good to minimise yourself to an archetype, if you really surrender to it; if you begin to really believe that you are one. Despite my many other excuses for moping in those years, my identity was not one of them. I had filed myself into something that others were happy with me being.
I think it’s hard to feel like your sadness is justified when you are someone who is predisposed to no-immediate-reason-and-not-provoked-by-an-external-event sadness. I have often viewed myself as the ‘killjoy’ of the family (‘buzzkill’ also works), as I too often can be set off into moods that make me mopey and quiet at the dinner table, ones that shorten my fuse to an unbelievably small length, ones that make my skin so thin I become almost translucent, blue and veiny with self-concocted misery. It was a running gag in my teenage years that I was a dark (and kind of depressing) individual. I was hyper-emotional and internally angsty; and while those jokes definitely didn’t help me in feeling that way, I also had a very clear voice in my head that would laugh sardonically into my eyelids and say “honey, what do you expect?”.
In cleaning my childhood room out I even found a journal entry from 2008 where I, on the cusp of the new year and turning nine, stated that I “am always happy and sad and happy and sad and confused”.
This sort of behaviour (if you can call it behaviour?) has not just made me a scourge upon my household but it has seeped into my social life despite all my wishes and attempts to bury my inner-sad-salmon-self. While I am sure my friends love me and care about me, I am also sure that it must be tiring to be around someone who frequently ruins perfectly good times.
I’ll look down in a normal atmosphere, laughing and drinking, chatting and feeling good, and see that the hands around my glass are see-through and watery. That I, am see-through and watery, and wavering in some trippy fourth dimension, knowing full-well that if I do not evacuate the premises immediately, all the silver-blue sorrow inside of me is going to pop the thin wall made of what human skin is left, and drown the room.
I am not a wallower by nature. Every time I feel the encroaching sadness and slowness in my bones, I attempt to strong arm myself out of it, or put it on a timer. So you best believe that more than anything, I despise how boring this all makes me. How my eyes sparkle with admiration at the people around me who greet the world with an undying warmth and a remarkable glow. And how in comparison, it is genuinely irritating that for all my attempts to be bright and light and helpful and sweet, for all my Pinterest boards filled with inspired positivity posts, I can’t help but catch my consciousness night-swimming about in pools of dark introspectivity.
Funnily enough, I think this may be one of the few parts of my personality that hasn’t changed over this seemingly long stretch of short time.
I wonder how many versions of me out there are waltzing around people’s memories, all watery and blue.
March 29th 2012
Yesterday was a failed day. I went into the girls bathroom at school and slipped in the water on the floor. I fell backwards and hit my head. I was sent home, so I didn’t get anything done. I felt dizzy and sick. The good thing is that today is parent teacher conference day, and I got good grades. I’m now a certified babysitter and I have my first job on the weekend. I can make money for myself instead of always taking from my parents. That’s a big comfort for me. It will be nice to make my own money.
Future Jade, it’s gonna be weird for you to read this because you won’t remember details that everyday you, well, we have lived. So right now I want to explain my exact location in detail. Sitting in the dining room alone. Candles in a dark wooden bowl in front of me. Beige seats all facing inward at the table like the harkness method. This page in front of you. Us, in our nightgown. It’s so weird.
What job did we end up getting? Who did we marry? When? How many kids? It seems so far away like mist and I can barely squint through. I bet that’s how you feel about past Jade isn’t it?
Even as I write this piece, I can feel myself almost wanting to scrape together some of these fragments of myself that I have found in the past, and burn from the communal timeline others. I think fondly of the girl I was on Avi’s couch in soft green daylight and cat-hair riddled woolen blankets, the obnoxious 15 year old desperately playing dress up as Stevie Nicks, of the little girl hoping to have a wedding in my backyard one day, of the me who only dreamt of being a musician. And despite having seen some of the less than desirable past versions of myself, I can’t help but compare who I seem to be now to all of them, over and over again, as though I’m turning over the glass shards of self within a naval-gazing rolodex of confusion, and coming up with nothing to show for the cuts this all leaves on my hands.
If we are what our thoughts are, then evidently I have been more than a few people. But if we are how people perceive us, I have absolutely no clue who I really am.
One year ago on a buttery day of July it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure what my dreams were any more. I had no goal profession, no ideal future, no singular vision of life. It was as though I suddenly opened eyes that I hadn’t realised were closed to find myself floating on a garishly hot wind of frugal indecisiveness. I clomped downstairs hoping to find something that resembled answers in a box of fennel tea or in the prolonged stare out of a window. Instead, I found my brother sheepishly chewing on a hunk of a cheese sandwich nestled in his right cheek. He looked at me plainly, gnawing slowly like a cow out to graze.
“Good morning,” he said, mouth-muffled and slow.
“It’s two in the afternoon.” He shrugged.
I clicked the kettle on with an angsty thumb and crossed my arms until the words blurted out of me more harshly than I intended,
“How come I knew who I was when I was in high school of all places, and now I seem to have no clue?”
After a brief interjection from his furrowed brow, my brother laughed and swallowed his now adequately worked-on sandwich hunk.
“Did you know who you were in high school?” he says through more laughter still, picking up his mug of coffee.
“Or did you just think you knew? Did you think you knew because you knew yourself that little?”
His eyes widened comically as he loudly slurped his Lungo. I stared back at him with eyes just as big- I had no idea how to respond when I had been struck with a truth so profound.
I look around as I rip the metal binding from the journal’s spines and I realise that perhaps, every time I’ve cleaned my room, or reorganised my things, or hodge-podge upcycled my personal effects, maybe I’ve become someone else.
Every time I have shed my external environment of stuff that no longer feels right (when I didn’t feel right) it consequently changed how I was feeling inside for the better.
But I never burned the room down and built it up again.
The walls, the roof, even the furniture- it all stayed the same.
I, instead, combed and combed through the more moveable stuff: the extra papers lying about, the clothes that didn’t fit anymore, the little kid’s books and dolls houses. I did these little things so often that over time it has seemed as though my room has undergone some large ‘beforeandafter’-worthy transformation.
In the midst of these cleaning spurts however, my tidying was done with such nuance it felt less like a deep clean and more like a straightening up of the place. Reordering my space to reorder myself.
I never burned the room down.
I put a stack of scribbled-on paper in a recycling pile, I rethink my fear at reading my old words.
Have I died a million times, or have I merely been built, bit by bit?
Art by Tia Merotto