025. “Smoke Dragon”

This is my struggle — to become who I really am, and to be comfortable with it.

Growing up, it became evident to me that being quiet and unseen was preferred. Opinions of my own weren’t valued; I became a pro at mirroring back people’s own opinions, even with few context clues to tell me what those opinions might be. Contradiction, or perceived contradiction, was met with anger or dismissal. I learned, slowly, how to simply not form opinions about things to begin with, and just take things as they came. Contrived apathy, so to speak. I was often on display as the “perfect, quiet child”. I was praised for it. I once participated in a live nativity scene at the front of a chapel; I was the only child they knew who could stay silent and absolutely still for hours.

I began to master the art of disappearing in plain sight. No one could criticize me, or bully me, or force me to be a public display of “perfect child” if they couldn’t even see me. I was quiet, mousy, invisible. After a while, I could walk in and out of rooms without being noticed at all. I could sit in on a study group and not get talked to. I could leave a dinner party and no one would know.

By the time I entered secondary school, I could be described as being in soft-focus, maybe not operating on the same plane as everyone else. It was as if I was just a little fuzzy around the edges. Undefined. Not quite visible. Even my opinions and preferences were soft-formed. People looked right through me. I would bump into people in the halls, and they would look around, startled, because they hadn’t realized I was there. I couldn’t have named music, clothes, colors, foods, or, really, anything that I liked. I didn’t have opinions. I was the mousy, library girl, who might be a figment of your imagination. I was warm, comfortable, safe.

And then I met my Tribe.

The Downstairs Kids (yes, we still call ourselves that, to this day) were a group of outcasts. We all came from broken, sometimes blatantly abusive homes. We were the drama kids, the a-little-too-into-manga crowd, the punks, the goths, the latch-key kids, those that were bullied and unpopular. Pushed out of the cafeteria by lack of room and generally not being wanted, we ate our lunches sitting on the floor underneath one of the sets of stairs in our high school, in clusters of five or six. There wasn’t really room for as many of us as there were. Generally lacking affection at home, we had no concept of “personal space”. It was often a giant platonic puppy-pile; people sitting with their legs on other people’s laps, heads on shoulders, arms around waists. We got in trouble alot for “Public Displays of Affection”. In reality, the majority of us weren’t dating anyone and had no illusions of that changing anytime soon. Still, “teenagers have hormones!” Pfft. Whatever.

That was when I started to really think for myself, and I started to get angry. I rebelled, but not in ways other people usually do. I stopped dying my hair and let it revert back to dark brown. I stopped cutting my hair. I started caring about what I wore and how I dressed, developing my own style, which was dressier than my parents’. I started caring about how I looked and taking care of my skin. I started losing weight. I dumped the boyfriend that my mother wanted me to have. I started standing up for myself.

My friends, though seen as troublemakers by both the school administration and my parents, were some of the most supportive, helpful, caring people I’ve ever met. They helped me sneak classical music into my house. They helped me reformat my school-necessary laptop so that my parents were unfamiliar with how it worked and installed a ton of spyware onto it so that I could bypass passwords used to keep me out of my own computer and off the internet (which was my only outlet to call for help if needed, since the home phone was monitored and I wasn’t allowed a cellphone). They hosted parties so I could get away from my house, and we all carefully monitored how much everyone at the party drank (at my parties, there was a strict 2 drink max) and made sure that there were designated drivers to get everyone home. We helped each other with homework. We bought each other clothes when our parents couldn’t be bothered (I always had clothes, but some of my friends weren’t that lucky). We bought each other lunch. Honestly, we were, collectively, some of the most responsible teenagers you’ve ever seen.

I was grounded almost continuously.

Then, I went to college and had a complete and total mental breakdown. I’ll tell that story later, because it deserves it’s own post, but I want you to understand that this was a complete, can’t care for myself, don’t know when I last ate, not sure what day it is-type meltdown. And it was a dramatic turning point in my life.

Two years, and many therapy sessions later, I stepped out of the fog depression into my new, scary, independent life. The process had fundamentally changed me. I was suddenly very visible, and it was jarring. When I walked into a room, I got noticed. People introduced themselves to me. People asked my opinions. Strangers talked to me. For almost the first time in my whole life, I realized that I was attractive to other people. It was shocking. It was exciting. It was scary.

I tried to recede back into the background, become just so much white noise again… but I couldn’t, at least not completely. Whether it was my new, but still shaky, confidence in my ability to handle life, or my fresh-minted sense of who I was, or maybe just my new body that I got from actually taking care of myself for once in life — whatever it was, I couldn’t just hide anymore. I couldn’t just be smoke and mist in the background of the scene. I was a player on stage, now.

And, I made mistakes. I wasn’t sure how to assert myself, how to voice my thoughts. I was afraid of rejection. I let people drag me into situations that I shouldn’t have allowed myself to be in. I dated guys I didn’t even like because I didn’t know how to turn them down. I ended up in some intensely scary situations, with people I would rather have never met. I was dragged to parties and used as a different sort of “public doll”… “Here’s my pretty, naive friend, won’t you get both of us a drink?”

I’m slow to stand up for myself, faster to stand up for others (case in point – endured years of mental abuse by my mother and still tried to have a relationship with her, but when my brother starts having panic attacks, I stand up for him). I can’t stand bullies. That is the one thing that will pull me out of my hiding, out of the smoke and mist, defending other people and standing up to bullies. I believe in standing for people who can’t stand for themselves. Ah, yes, there is indeed true irony in the world.

The more I practice being myself, taking care of myself, learning what I actually think, and holding firm to the ideals I’ve found, the more solid I become, and the less I can hide. I am unsure how to proceed. It doesn’t feel safe or comfortable, but it feels right. When I step out of the mist, out of the smoke and haze that I use to hide, when I stand in front of someone, look them in the eyes, and refuse to back down, something clicks in my mind, and I know this is who I’m meant to be, this strong, calm, capable woman.

But, I know most people aren’t expecting me to be that woman. I’m short. I’m young. I don’t do things to unnecessarily draw extra attention to myself. I often don’t share my opinions, even though I have them. I’m still relatively quiet. When I show that side of me, the part that’s genuine and fierce, the general consensus is that I’m intimidating. Scary. I’ve been told I’m scary. I accidentally looked one of my coworkers in the eye when I was angry once, and he backed away a little. He’s taller, and his shoulders are wider, but in that moment, he didn’t want to mess with me.

I guess that occasionally helps when you’re working security.

I need to become more comfortable with the intimidating side of me, the side that stands up for what’s right and doesn’t back down. I’m not just smoke anymore. I have claws. There’s no going back; there’s only going forward. Being true to who I am, taking care of myself, not being afraid to upset people… this is where I’m headed. I’m afraid of not being good enough at whatever I want to do, at not being “enough”. I’m also afraid of being too much, too scary, too… too dangerous. What if no one likes the real me?

So, this is my journey. Onward, ever clearer.

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