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Breaking Away From the Misconceptions of Identity, and an Incidental Confession
To begin what unequivocally will be a miscarried first newsletter, I shall shed a few foxed leaves of paper armor and dip into vulnerability. Consider it a necessary preface to explain today’s title and subject, which is (where did that outline go?) . . .
Whatever. I’ll figure it out.
You see, despite my reclusion, something resembling joy urges me to share a significant milestone publicly. Bear with me.
Recovering an Identity
Today marks five years I’ve been sober.
When I acquired sobriety (I promise this is going somewhere), I was homeless and jobless and spent most days in a public library, a place then unfamiliar to me. I knew nothing of literature. The most compelling book I’d ever read was Tuesdays with Morrie. Often for my bi-yearly read, I chose nonfiction, usually whatever self-help book my mother had thrust in my face during a season supposedly jolly.
During those homeless days, after reading a biography of Bob Dylan and some memoirs by writers not impactful enough to remember, Bukowski came to mind, a name I’d once heard on television and knew nothing about. His novels lacked substance, yet I could identify with his poetry. Then it was Burroughs, Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Henry Miller.
Reading Tropic of Capricorn’s opening paragraph was when my life’s trajectory altered. By the book’s end, my brain was twisted and stretched as if torn through a black hole. Miller’s vehemence exalted me, the vulgarity, the profound ideas wrapped in pages-long digressions, except I didn’t know what a digression was back then. Nor did I know what a preposition was or how to spell “adjective”. So it’s baffling that attempting a novel had entered my mind.
I had to try it.
Near 50,000 words, I realized I wasn’t writing a novel but searching for an identity.
Here’s why: Being chemically altered and functionally blacked out daily was who I was for two decades. Without drugs and alcohol, nothing defined me. It was more than finding a purpose, though that, too, played a role in my misplaced selfhood.
I drank for many reasons, but mostly to avoid thinking, to evade self-consciousness, and to act freely without forethought or stutter. I was ignorant and arrogantly pretended to be the smartest person in the bar, regardless of my monosyllabic dialect, slang, and curse words: the language of the lazy rebellion.
This is all very embarrassing, and I can’t fathom why I would admit to some of my most mortifying and grotesque past faults. Regret doesn’t come close to describing how I feel about my imbecilic dark days.
Memories of incidents disagreeable to my newly sober brain bombarded me by the minute during those first few months clean. It was insufferable. I wanted so badly to escape myself.
Instead, I learned how to lean into my thoughts, shape and embrace them, sit still in the muck of the past and separate the present me from the hideous previous me. Then my self-conscious grew self-conscious, or so it seemed.
Let me ask you this: Are we ever asunder from our past selves? Of course, every moment, choice, and impression throughout our lives compose the person we’ll be tomorrow but am I still me of old, wet-brained with a whiskey smile and tears hibernating behind glossed eyes? Perhaps.
Sometimes it feels like the younger me is sitting on my shoulders, barking mad, peddling negativity and diminishing my confidence and worth. If I let the insidious monster, it will steal my goals as easily as plucking copper wishes from shallow water.
Here’s what I think: We are never passed the past, tense or wonderful, remembered or not; it lurks like a shadow on a photographed face, displacing light while the subconscious furtively flirts with internal recordings and spews misinformation.
And as I tip-toe into the future, I can’t forever distance myself from the younger versions of me, though neither are we intertwined—it’s more as if they’re scattered about like galaxies in space, a continuum expanding outward together and apart, getting no closer but no farther away from one another, telepathically linked till death.
Here’s what John Updike thinks:
“Not only are selves conditional but they die. Each day we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead.”
Being overly self-conscious subjugates my selfhood. I often must rehearse who I am before leaving the house. The apprehension is unbearable. The anxiety further misguides me. How am I supposed to act? Where I go and who I might speak to dictate my behavior. Confusion abounds.
Is everyone acting? Some people believe so, and I‘m inclined to agree.
As does Nathan Zuckerman at the end of Philip Roth’s The Counterlife:
“Being Zuckerman is one long performance and the very opposite of what is thought of as being oneself. In fact, those who most seem to be themselves appear to me people impersonating what they think they might like to be, believe they ought to be, or wish to be taken to be by whoever is setting standards. So in earnest are they that they don’t even recognize that being in earnest is the act. For certain self-aware people, however, this is not possible: to imagine themselves being themselves, living their own real, authentic, or genuine life, has for them all the aspects of a hallucination.”
Is this a healthy way to live? Ehh . . . whether it is or not, I wouldn’t want to experience life again without excessive self-awareness and cunning self-consciousness.
Occasionally I have to exercise Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) when changing my thoughts is necessary to move onward with my day, and indecision won’t quit. However, CBT feels much like self-deception, so I use it sparingly.
My abandoning the notion of identity notwithstanding, the issue incessantly plagues me because I often trap myself in imagining the labels anyone within sight casts upon me. It’s an affliction.
Nowadays, some people consider their identities composed of their choice in the political aisle and sexual preference. Self-expression and personality also dominate several theories of identity. Worse, many people define you by your occupation, as if it’s the sum of your existence. This is why I loathe my resume—blue-collar and plebeian—it reflects nothing of the person I’ve worked so hard to become these last five years.
So I remind myself daily I am not the person I imagine “you” think I am, keeping in mind that I am also at fault because my perceptions are as distorted and critical as the next person’s. I must remain cognizant of our perceptions’ defects, lest I become those judgments, whether imagined or not.
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If you enjoyed this essay, check out the one below. It covers the same topics and explores my experiences during the months leading to my last drink and drug.