Sometimes I have the thought, “I have lost my way.” It always alarms me. It suggests that at some point in my life I must have had a WAY so perfect that if I had only continued to follow it without straying, it would have led to eternal bliss, infinite wisdom, or enlightenment.
At times I may have the thought when it is not really called for, when I am only having a bad day. But there have been times in my life when I really did lose my way, times when I moved away from who I really was and toward some alien substitute which left me desperately unfulfilled and confused.
The first time I lost my way, I was a chronically confused nine-year-old who had been repeatedly teased for being shy.
At nine I decided, “I have to change. I need to become someone else, or I will never be happy.” This was not just a passing thought, but a burning conviction, fueled by years of glares, snubs, and rebukes, and the way people spoke the word “shy,” as if it was a grave character defect that would doom me to a life of friendless misery.
At the time my need to change seemed like more than a belief; it seemed obvious, like the sky being blue. I had to change. I had to change the way I needed to eat, the way I needed to breathe, the way I needed warmth in winter. So I identified the kids everyone seemed to admire and tried my best to imitate them. I wondered, what was it? Was it the way they stood, the way they spoke, the way they smiled?
Mainly, though, I tried to “talk more,” which is what everyone, including parents and teachers had been urging me to do since kindergarten. Other than that, I had no idea what qualities made kids likable to other kids.
In kindergarten I had gone into my first day of school with a simple belief: If you are nice to people, people will be nice to you. Reality made a mockery of this notion; at my school it was the bullies everyone seemed to admire, the ones who only ever seemed to laugh when they were laughing at someone.
I was constantly looking for clues to the magic. I tried imitating kids everyone liked without knowing if what I was imitating was the true source of the magic: the style of dress, a way of speaking, a charming glance, a way of laughing.
I tried to talk when I did not feel like talking, to wear clothes that looked like the kind others wore whether I personally liked the style of dress or not. But I was a poor imitator, and because I did not know why – or if – what I was imitating “worked,” my experiment fizzled. In fact, it led to my appearing weirder than I ever had been before, and feeling even more lost.
My experiment culminated in a school-wide sixth grade bullying experience that shattered any aspirations of being popular. I switched to a strict Christian school for three years to get away from the bullies. A severe adolescent depression followed, which was mixed up with religious confusion fueled by fundamentalist teachers who convinced me that having certain thoughts was evil.
Three years later, after I had mostly gotten over the bullying trauma, something incredible happened: The clouds broke. A path appeared. Light glimmered in the distance, and I found my way.
It was around the same time I discarded my religious beliefs, freeing myself from the neurotic self-blame my teachers had instilled. At that time, nothing seemed too sacred to question, and I had a radical idea, not just about religion, but about shyness.
It was that being shy was not wrong. I made a decision: I was going to be as shy as I chose, shockingly “in-your-face,” and unapologetically shy. Plus, I would wear whatever shoes I wanted and listen to whatever music I pleased. I decided to stop sun-bathing. Sun-bathing was boring and stupid. Why was being pale so bad anyway? So what if I seemed weird? I would be weird on purpose. At least weird was not boring, as long as I was genuinely weird and not weird because I was trying too hard to be like others.
The way I felt was the emotional equivalent of hearing music in a video game when you have leveled up or opened a well-hidden chest. Congratulations! You have unlocked the first part of the puzzle, you have defeated the End-of-Level Boss. You may proceed to level 2!
My depression lifted. No longer fixated on being liked, I became interested in the world. I felt a surge of hope that amounted to reassurance that had found my way.
Or at least a stretch of sidewalk. I did not completely stop caring what others thought. I decided to make straight A’s. Emotionally it was a step up. Unlike trying to be liked by other kids, my grades could be controlled.
At the same time my identity became entangled with “being smart.” I became a perfectionist where my grades were concerned, a trait which set the stage for losing my way again many years later.
It happened in 2001. This story is one I tell myself again and again because I never want to forget it, not even for a day. This time I lost my way not socially, but creatively.
Since childhood I had yearned to be a writer, and teachers had constantly praised my stories. As an adult I had self-published my first novel and dreamed of being prolific.
However, a manic episode that led to my bipolar disorder diagnosis changed everything. I went on a mood-stabilizing medication that drained me of energy and rendered creative activity impossible to enjoy.
Mired in depression, I could see no way out of my situation. I hated everything I wrote. I imagined critics standing behind my chair as I typed saying things like, “self-indulgent,” cloying,” “shoddily constructed” or “trite” – imaginary intellectuals judging me on the one aspect of myself I clung to as part of my identity: my ability to think.
Writing felt like placing my palm on a hot stove and trying to hold it there for as long as I could; every time I wrote, I could count on my mood to crash. For a time, I gave up altogether. For years I felt certain I would never be able to enjoy writing again.
However, my writing aspirations were like a fly infestation. They kept coming back, and swatting them never solved my problem for long. My dad would bring me old essays I had written, fling them into my lap, and say, “Look at this. Look at what you wrote. You are being wasted.”
Eventually, I had to try again because my writing was too much a part of me not to. A guidance counselor in college had once said to me “Writing is your soul.” He was right. For me, existing without writing was not really living.
I went back to my computer. With gritted teeth, I tried again. I forced myself to throw down words whether I liked them or not. It was more emotionally painful than anything I had ever done. One day I closed my laptop in frustration, feeling totally beaten and on the verge of quitting forever.
I desperately tried to remember what I had once loved about writing, and the question took me on a mental trek back to my childhood, to a time when writing had always been fun. Despite my social floundering, I had not feared critics then. I had written to make myself happy; no one had ever forced me to write my creepy vampire stories. What had happened?
I had come full circle. Here it was again, the same issue of wanting to please that had gotten me into trouble as a child, only this time the crowd I wanted to please was not popular kids but imaginary critics with big vocabularies. I remembered a time before I had become a straight A student, a time when as a kid, I had scorned rules and written whatever I liked. While my childhood had been far from blissful, my writing had been the exception.
As I remembered, I found my way. I found it by giving up, but not on writing. I gave up on writing to please critics, whether real or imaginary, professional or amateur.
I decided I would write the way I had as a kid, without regard for rules or “authorities.” I jailed my imaginary critics and stopped reading how-to-write articles. Maybe I would never make a living writing, but if I was going to write, I was going to enjoy it. I stopped forcing myself to write for a set number of hours and instead made a goal of writing a sentence a day, although I almost always wanted to write more.
Everything I have written since went back to that moment when I found my way. But again, I had not found the whole way, because on some days I still feel lost.
When I say to myself “I have lost my way,” what do I really mean? I mean I am worried I have lost perspective, become more fixated on the opinions of others than the writing itself, become addicted to praise and terrified of criticism. It means I am driven by anxiety, reacting, not acting, fleeing discomfort instead of moving toward what I truly want and love.
My old “epiphanies” were good but they were incomplete. In some ways they were never fully realized.
I am never blocked, yet I still find myself wanting to please sometimes. When people praise my writing, I want the praise to continue. And, as much as I hate to admit it, there is an insecure 12-year-old inside me that, despite her painful early lessons, would still like to be popular.
While I am writing, I focus on what I like, but right after I publish a book or a blog, I feel anxious that it will not be well-received. I have never fully conquered the aspects of my nature that have tripped me up in the past. I know myself better than I used to, but in the end, I am still just me.
At moments of insecurity, I yearn for a new “epiphany.” I want to level up. I want to once again shed exhausted old fears and leave them behind to go to someplace new.
I find myself obsessing about the times before when I “found my way” and realize they had common elements. Each time I suffered because I had strayed too far from myself in an effort to please. I reached a moment of full-fledged despair. The world as I knew it collapsed, and I had to let go of something I thought I needed that was actually holding me back.
On some days I feel like I am closing in on a new insight that scurries out of sight as soon as I spot it, and I wonder if there is anything I might be clinging to that I need to let go of, like an irrational fear that is creating barriers to “finding my way.”
But maybe no one ever finds their way once and for all. Life is not a straight and narrow path; it has curving roads and undulating hills, not to mention sinkholes and ditches. Maybe losing your way is as vital as finding it, an under-appreciated leg of the journey where the real learning lies, the match that lights the lantern that reveals the unexpected path, the turn that changes everything.
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