Taking a Breath

I’ve had a lot of time to collect my thoughts lately. I may have to pore through my archives to see, but I suspect there’s been a fairly dramatic shift in tone over the last year. It’s been a rough year. I left my job and possibly my career behind to become a graduate student, and I’ve been doing freelance work in lieu of a regular job until I find something.

I’ve had a lot of time to sit and think. More accurately, I’ve had a lot of time where I don’t have specific things to think about, so my mind wanders, and it relaxes and sprawls out. At first this panicked me. It seemed like I could feel myself dulling, losing my edge. At first it seemed like a wax sculpture slowly melting, losing form and definition and identity. That last bit was the scariest.

I’m a student, but I don’t feel like one. I’m a gamer, but I’ve barely clocked ten hours in front of a game in the last two weeks. I’m a game designer, but I’ve barely done any game designing in nearly a year. I’m a romantic… who’s single. I’m… what? What’s left when all of the things I do that define me are things I’m not really doing at all? I felt my edge slipping, my shape blurring, my identity fading, and I felt like I lacked anything concrete to replace any of it with.

This loss scared me. I have a good network of close friends who I value highly, and if I’m no longer me, who exactly are they friends with? It caused me to retreat into a mask of my old self, looking for all the world like the complete upheaval going on inside was really just a minor inconvenience that would be cleared up as soon as I got a few interviews and settled in. At the same time, I was meeting new people, lots of new people, for the first time in years. Not the five minute hello-goodbye that you get at a party or out dancing, but weeks and months of classes with people, and time to get to know them. It’s been an opportunity to be an entirely different person, and it’s afforded me the opportunity to self-evaluate in a way that I haven’t since college.

At the same time, I’ve been forced to define myself by things other than what I’m currently doing, because it’s not a good measure of who I am. It’s caused me to reconsider how much I defined myself by my career and my hobbies previously. Without those as an easy reference point to let people know what (and, by extension, who) I am, I’ve had to introduce myself to people as myself, rather than as a series of labels. For all of my distaste for defining people with labels, I’ve unconsciously been doing it to myself for years.

Without any of that to hide behind, and with classes specifically tailored to rip me bodily from my shell, it’s been an intense few months (with little sign of slowing). I’m unfolding parts of my mind that haven’t been touched in a really long time, while trying to make peace with the fact that I’m just me, I’m not a gamer or a game designer or a manager or a student. I’ve done more new things in the last eight months than I did in the previous 48, and I’ve had the chance to really pore through my own thoughts.

I talked a few days ago about how I don’t trust myself. It manifests in a few ways, but a lot of it crystallized when someone pointed out to me that I’m really, really bad at taking compliments. Even when I take them, I internalize them badly. Someone tells me I’m smart and I immediately take that as both a new weight of expectation and a suggestion that I’ve miscommunicated and said too much or too little. Someone comments on how I notice things and I worry that I seem creepy. I try to be attentive, thoughtful, inclusive, open-minded, and treat others better than I would want to be treated, and only hear the times when people tell me I’ve failed at them.

I’ve struggled for a long time with having advantages that other people don’t, and trying not to call attention to them for fear that I’m “rubbing it someone’s face”. When someone gives me a compliment that I know is true, I cringe a little bit on the inside because it feels like it’s drawing attention to one of those advantages. I’ve been checking my privilege since before that was a concept, and I’ve been acutely, stomach-turningly aware of people who don’t. I’ve been trying not to come off as “too smart” or “too perceptive” or “too good at things” for years, and insisting that I’m not all that smart or perceptive or good at anything. It’s a hollow lie. I’m not perfect, but I’m a hell of a lot better than I’ve been allowing myself to take credit for.

One of the things that started happening in the first few months of my taking classes was an acute realization that I was leaving a strong impression on pretty much everyone I met, without meaning to. It scared me, because it meant that my attempts to go unnoticed were failing, and that I was affecting people unintentionally. I had somehow become the person I’d always admired, the type of person who can speak quietly in a room and have everyone turn to listen– it actually happened to me several times in a class. I could quietly, unassumingly take charge and direct a group of people into becoming a team, and it mostly happened because I thought of something and said it, and people listened and acted on it. My suggestions were treated like directives, and it terrified me.

At the end of one of my classes, I had a string of people thank me for all of my work in organizing and leading everyone. I couldn’t escape the effect I’d had on people, and I agonized over it in the interim between classes. It seemed irresponsible and dangerous to leave a strong impression on people when I didn’t intend to, and my friends, when I commented that it seemed to be happening, generally laughed and said “yeah, obviously.”

I went into my classes this quarter differently. My goal was to leave an impression on people intentionally, to play an active role in what they thought of me and why. I also had to do it without a clear sense of my own identity, and the result felt predictably scattered and chaotic, or so I thought. The feedback I got was that I felt genuine, and perceptive; insightful and analytical, if the latter to a fault at times. People were happy to have met me and I found that the thoughts I’d studiously avoided expressing were well-received and valued. I’ve since been trying to express more of those thoughts with my friends, and it’s very hard to do. My patterns of interaction feel so well defined that I’m leery of breaking from the mold, but I’ve still made little forays and have been met with encouragement.

In the meantime, I’m trying to reclaim those positive traits that I’ve turned around on myself. I’m learning Japanese, a very difficult language, and I’m going to try to take another shot at Chinese at the same time. I think I might ask my mom to start speaking to me solely in Spanish, so I can go from “can mostly understand” to “can speak”. Learning three languages, two of them notoriously difficult, at the same time is crazy. I have no idea if I can do it (and probably can’t), but damn it, I’m smart. I’m not going to find out what I can actually do without pushing my limits, and I have an opportunity right now to push my limits like crazy and see what I can actually accomplish. I’ve been trying to memorize map directions at a glance, and catch little details in everything. I’ve been striking up conversations with random people, and trying to memorize the name of everyone I meet.

I can’t yet say if this grand experiment, leaving my job and moving across the country, was a good idea. It’s still firmly in the “questionable” category from any sort of measurable standpoint, but I’ve had a lot of time and opportunity to heal and grow in ways I can’t measure. I’m a better person now than I was before I moved out here, and I think that alone makes the experiment worthwhile.

No pictures again today. Sorry. I’m exhausted.

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