The Unique Anxiety of Outgrowing the Life I Built for Myself

Growing up doesn’t always signify the accumulation of new knowledge and wisdom. Sometimes it can mean letting go of the routines and beliefs that have come to bind us, forcing us to tread water long enough to realize we’re not moving. In honor of Growing Up Month, we’re republishing this story of Harling’s from September 2018 to serve as a reminder that opportunities for growth present in mysterious ways.

I’ve always done the sensible thing, made the safe choice, kept quiet until I was sure of what I had to say. I did well in school. I graduated on time. I moved back to the city where I was born. I live with my best friend, a person who watched me grow up. I’m in a relationship with someone I met when we were children, 11 years old in a swimming pool. I prefer to write things down, in my head or on paper, before I speak them out loud.

As the unwitting architect of my life, I built it like a swaddle — a blanket wound firmly around the decisions I’ve made, a perfect mold for the person I thought I would always be. I built it to hold me still, to keep my feet planted exactly where I am. I built it to weather change, to withstand all the external uncertainties that might seep through and drown my sense of stability.

That’s why I never expected a leak to come from the inside. It caught me by surprise: Suddenly, I found myself underwater. Now everything looks blurry, like I’m missing something even though I haven’t lost anything, like I need something even though I have everything I used to need, like no one “gets” me even though I’m surrounded by people who know me, like everything changed even though nothing has.

I can’t articulate who I am anymore, but I know for certain it’s something I’ve never been.

Well, not nothing. I’m different. That piece of the puzzle has just started to crystallize. After months of indulging in the misplaced frustration that nobody was seeing me the way I wanted to be seen, or asking me the questions I wanted to be asked, it occurred to me that I was the one who had fanned out the clues to a new self, only to hold them against my chest like a cryptic deck of cards.

I can’t articulate who I am anymore, but I know for certain it’s something I’ve never been. An urgency to put words to it is stuck like a lozenge in my throat, a case of writer’s block so debilitating it keeps me up at night. Fragments of sentences swirl their way around my head as I’m trying to fall asleep. Waiting to know how to fit them together feels both impossible and necessary, because what is a piece of writing without a pitch, an angle, a clear beginning and end? Nothing more than a journal entry, or worse, mere gibberish jotted down in a Notes app.

Countless times, I’ve reached over to my nightstand and opened up my phone to try to scribble something down before it slips away like a marble I can’t help but chase: I’ve started to wonder if, up until now, I conflated doing the same thing and making the same choices over and over again with having figured myself out.

We repeat stories about ourselves to make sense of our worlds. The stories I’ve always told about who I am — that I don’t take risks, that I’m the good daughter, that I’m the uncomplicated girlfriend, that I have to look a certain way to be happy, that the shape of my future is not only obvious but inevitable — sound strangely discordant now, as if out of tune with my current self. But even though I’m starting to discern what I’m not, I still can’t pinpoint what I am. That’s what makes me think I never knew in the first place.

I want to feel understood, but first I have to understand myself. I know I don’t feel out of place because my life has changed, because I built it to hold me still.

My mind clamors to dismiss the suspicion. It says it’s nothing more than a passing whiff of the classic late-twenty-something identity crisis trope. It goads me to duck my head and cover my ears and wait for it to blow over so I can wrap myself back inside the life that used to fit me so comfortably. That would certainly be easier, but my body knows the truth, pricking tears into the corners of my eyes whenever I brush closer to it, spiking hot with adrenaline every time I probe a little further, vibrating with a near-unbearable hunger to have someone hold my deck of cards in their hands and nod, gently, in recognition.

I want to feel understood, but first I have to understand myself. I know I don’t feel out of place because my life has changed, because I built it to hold me still. I built it to keep my feet planted exactly where I am, so when I took a step forward, when the person I thought I would always be suddenly wasn’t, when I cracked the mold and asked what other stories I might tell about myself, the life I made so carefully looked strangely small.

And yet, as confusing as it all seems, as disorienting as it feels, a curious thrill pulses in my chest. With a thud, it tells me I can’t unknow what I know now, but I can give myself permission to chase growth over stability, to hold lightly to the things I thought I wanted, to unwind the swaddle and lay myself bare. With another thud, it places words on my tongue, a kind of surrender, like a lozenge dissolving: I am the architect of my life, and I am no longer unwitting.

Gif by Louisiana Mei Gelpi.

Harling Ross

Harling is a writer and was most recently the Brand Director at Man Repeller.

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