Who do you see when you look at me? Who do I see when I look in the mirror?
I could show you labels: mother, artist, friend, lover, autistic. They are all mine and I accept them as my truth but they are not my whole truth, not the whole story of who I am. So I will tell you a story about me so that you can come to know me and see who I see when I gaze into the mirror.
Once upon a time there was a little girl who had a fascination for the world around her. She would play in the woods and delight in the way the light fell gently through the leaves to lay softly on the ground. She would caress the trees and feel their days written upon the bark of their trunks.
She enjoyed school—well, it would be more honest and accurate to say she enjoyed learning although the actual environment of school left much to be desired—and appeared to thrive if all you looked at were her academic achievements. And, by and large, that’s all that anybody did look at so nobody saw her hesitance and uncertainty, the way she would wait to see which way others went before following so that she didn’t stand out.
She started collecting labels the way she would collect books and Lego: shy, quiet, deep, clever, moody, reserved, introspective, neurotic. Some she liked, others not so much, but they all had one thing in common; they had all been given to her by other people. She wore them, made them into a mask so that what people saw when they looked at her was what they expected to see.
Beneath her mask, inside her own head, she would sometimes wonder who she really was. She knew she wasn’t the person everybody else appeared to see, this mask that she wore out in the world, but she also assumed that if everybody outside believed that she was her mask then that must be true even if it didn’t feel right inside.
As the years passed, more and more of the things that made her uniquely individual became hidden under the mask, the better to meet the expectations of everybody around her: parents, teachers, peers. She was a square peg squeezed and pushed and forced into a standard round hole.
She broke down at 13. She knows why, what events led to it. It was easier afterwards to blame bullying rather than try to explain feelings and responses to a situation that would be alien to most others: she had learned by then that other people didn’t see the world the way she did and reacted differently. She entertained fantasies that she was an alien like Spock from Star Trek disguised as a human: she knew this wasn’t true but there was a compelling resonance to the idea.
I’ll leave this story here, its purpose served. There’s only so much you can learn from a simple story: it’s as much about the person telling it as it is about the character in it. Here’s the same story, told differently.
Once there was a little girl who grew up and became a woman, fell in love, got married, had a daughter.
Once there was a little girl who became lost, and everyone who she turned to for help steered her down the wrong path because they couldn’t see where she wanted to go.
Once there was a little girl who hid herself behind a mask for so long that the mask became a cocoon, while inside she transformed into a woman who finally stepped free the day the cocoon broke open.
Once there was a little girl who got broken and spent the following years picking up the pieces to put herself back together.
Once there was a little girl who was loved by her mother, and who loved her mother in return, and made up her mind that she wanted to be like her when she grew up.
It’s my story; I can tell it any way I choose. I’ve chosen to portray myself this way so that you can hopefully see me as I am, not as a collection of labels. I’ve not described myself directly; rather, I’ve guided you on a tour through a carefully curated slice of my life. I hope that you’ve learned a little about me, come to understand me in a way that I couldn’t achieve by simply describing myself.
Labels have their uses and their places, but the name is not the thing. Like in the famous Magritte painting, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe.) A depiction or description of me is not me. But hopefully it bears close enough resemblance that you’d be able to recognise me from it.
When I started writing this piece I had some ideas about what I wanted to say, but that wasn’t the shape that formed under my hands. What I’ve ended up with here expresses my thoughts in a more satisfying form than what I imagined: that’s the way my creative mind works and I’d not have it any other way.
Like my story above, my life is unfinished, and the shape it ultimately takes is not under my conscious control, but I trust my instincts to create something I can feel satisfied with at the end. I’ve experienced pain and despair, I’ve been broken and damaged by some of what I’ve been through. But I have passed through that: it’s done and in the past.
The shape that the trauma moulded me into can be changed by the gentler, kinder forces that surround me today. The mask I was forced to wear as protection can be taken off and left behind. I do not need or want to be defined by what was done to me: I am not a victim or survivor. I am an explorer, a seeker of what wonders the world has to offer. I look to where I am and where I might go, not the path I’ve already travelled.