Finding peace in rewriting my narrative identity

A year ago, I wrote this piece on Medium about the losses of my year. The narrative was swirling in self-doubt, steeped in an unfamiliar pessimism, and topped with venomous anger. Re-reading it is painful. It hurts to see myself like that. The catharsis was worth it, even though it lives on as a reminder of a marker that I’d rather not revisit. A couple of months later, when my truth had reformed itself as something a little more realistic, I wrote down the lessons that the year had taught me.

The most important lesson I espoused:

Even when you’re bitter and angry, don’t let yourself live in that place. It’s not your home. It’s not even a sanctuary — it’s a dirty bus stop with clogged toilets and broken pinball machines. Move along as soon as you can.

I didn’t realize that it would take me another year to move along from this dirty bus stop. I couldn’t leave. I tried to. I would get close to that door and then something would turn me around. Let me tell you — anyone would lose their temper having to play the emotional equivalent of a broken pinball machine for months on end.

Reflecting, especially of the introspective kind, is one of the most important things that I do on a regular basis. The whole “know thyself” thing is an essential building block of my personality. But when my internal narrative is devoid of anything that is remotely “me,” I’m in trouble.

I’ve been reading The Power of Meaning by Emily Esfahani Smith. I bought it on a whim at a small bookstore in the West Village when I was waiting for my girl to finish getting her hair coloured. I’d already re-read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a tattered favourite of mine for a good reason. Rubin always had a way of reacquainting myself with what happiness really means.

But for whatever reason, it didn’t stick. My mind has been like a molecular sieve — nothing meaty or especially nuanced has been getting through to me. Happiness sometimes feels like a concept that I was passingly familiar with, but I can’t recall how to apply it to my life. I figured, why not? Why not look to meaning and purpose instead of the fleeting nature of happiness?

Esfahani Smith’s work deals with the pillars of meaning, which include belonging, purpose, storytelling, and transcendence. It’s worth reading her book for the stories she pulled together from a dizzying array of people and studies. But what really got me was in her chapter about growth.

I fully acknowledge that my life is the result of the decisions that I’ve made. Some of them have been good. Others have been questionable. (So, y’know, I’m human.) But trauma, regardless of its origin point, has an all-encompassing effect on our sense of identity. For me, this manifested in not trusting myself anymore. I’ve been struggling to grok and process all of the change, even though I’m the one who initiated much of it. There’s just too damn much to go through.

So, I turned to meaning instead of happiness.

Part of this journey for meaningfulness is acknowledging that my narrative identity — the stories that I tell myself about myself — is deeply flawed. It’s been muddled by outside perspective and moral judgment about who they believe me to be. And, of course, I internalized it as truth.

I’ve been unlearning these things about myself. Their truth isn’t mine. Their perspective doesn’t match mine. The narrative identity that has cropped up in place of the one I’ve been carefully cultivating over the years isn’t my collection of stories. It’s a Greatest Hits version of everyone else’s.

Esfahani Smith notes in her book that people who use storytelling to make sense of their lives are the ones who are able to find meaning in their lives. The more they write, the better they understand themselves. Part of why I write is to make sense of the world around me, but I’d lost the part of my writing that forced me to look at myself.

Rewriting my narrative identity isn’t a matter of writing and rewriting affirmations and repeating them in a mirror. It’s about choosing to reframe my experiences as triumphant, rather than poisonous. I’ve spent much of the last year looking at myself and wondering how the hell I went from a bubbly, happy woman to someone who is constantly fearful and sad.

It has been poisonous.

Reframing the experiences as triumphant means that I can reshape how I see myself. Perhaps I didn’t ruin everything with everyone I know. Perhaps this is the result of not needing treatment for my bipolar for so many years and then suddenly finding the world falling away from me and not knowing how to cope. But I’ve come through the worst of it, ferociously clutching my shredded sanity and the family that I’ve sacrificed so much to build.

I may not be the heroine of my own story, but at least I’m not the villain.

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