I slip into sloppily created versions for myself hoping I can pretend long enough to believe it. Long enough to fool the world into thinking I'm truly someone other then myself. I'm not good with the unknown. The undefined. The mysterious. Not knowing who I am is just too uncomfortable for me and so I latch onto pieces of the world I can use to define myself. If I can define myself within the identity of a particular type of person, then I have a direction to follow. The only problem with this methodology of life, is that if I force myself to be a particular way, I don't give myself much freedom to really explore who I am or what I want. That's what I've done, I live trapped in the confines of boxes and not in the expansive possibilities of life. And in the end, we can only have so much control. Sometimes life happens in unexpected ways and we sink deeply, uncontrollably, into the role it give us.
Once, what feels like a very long time ago, I was normal. Or a version of what I thought normal looked like: I got good grades, took honors classes, was captain of my high schools varsity cheerleading team, I was involved in community theater, I had beautiful friendships. On the surface, I checked all the boxes. But, in truth, life was chaotic. From the very beginning my world was messy, filled with the tribulations of divorced parents who shared a mutual hatred of each other and three children, but nothing else. Custody battles, child support disagreements and unkind words shared between the two, passed through me and left me decorated in their consequences. Maybe it is because I'm the middle child or perhaps it's just part of my make-up, but I felt it was my responsibility to keep the peace in my family. I did my best to balance these two contradictory parts of my life; the normal and the chaotic. At early ages, my brother and sister struggled with both emotional and behavioral issues and much of my parents' attention was consumed with making sure that they could get through life in the healthiest possible way. I on the other hand, was good at putting the pieces of my external life in place, at disconnecting my insides and my outsides, and so I was given the identity of the child my parents didn't have to worry about. I wanted to make them happy, so I seeped into this role. After all, that's who they told me I was and I was young and didn't yet know I could be anyone I wanted to be. And so, I acted like a good little girl and I followed the rules. I did everything that was expected of me. In compliance with this identity, when emotional feelings started to burn inside me, I just buried them deep into the unknown places of myself. I ignored the things I felt or the struggles I was going through and simply pretended they didn't exist. I got so good at pretending, hiding myself under a mask of normalcy, that I started to believe it. I became the girl who had it together, I no longer thought I was pretending. I even resented my brother and sister for all the chaos they created in our lives. Why couldn't they just be normal like I was? Somewhere along the line I got the idea that it was my responsibility to take care of my father. I don't know if it was a choice or if was put upon me, but I began to see myself as my dad's partner. I looked after him emotionally. His struggles were my struggles. I took on his burdens and tried to fix them. Now I couldn't fall apart into a heap of adolescents, I needed to be strong in order to take care of my father. I wasn't in a position where I could be taken care of because I needed to do the caring. Down down down inside me went everything I was struggling with. It turns out, I am very good at lying to myself. I simply convinced myself I was fine and that's what I became. I must take a moment to tell you that my parents are absolutely wonderful people. But that's what they are, they are just people, who did the very best they could and gave me and my siblings all the love in their hearts. I am so grateful for them and I wouldn't want to go through this life with anyone else. I was a cheerleader and our eleven month season and my position as co-captain easily helped me embrace this identity. Cheerleaders were supposed to be all smiles after all. A competitive cheerleading routine is one of the most physically exhausting things I've ever done. For two and a half minutes you have to tumble, hold girls up in the air, cheer, dance, all while smiling and looking like you are having the best time ever. During each competition, the entire two and a half minutes I would be nervous, out of breath, and all together want to collapse. But the judges couldn't see that because we would lose points in the 'facials' category. And so I pretended. I ignored all the things I was feeling and replaced it with a big fat smile that showed my teeth. I fooled the judges into thinking I was happy. And in life I did the same. The only difference is, on the mat I knew how I was feeling inside and that my smile was a manipulation of facial features. In life, I thought my smile was real.
THE GIRL WITH THE DEAD BROTHER
When my brother was killed in September 2009, over night I became the girl with the dead brother. I was no longer normal, because I suffered a tragedy that made me unique amongst everyone I knew. I felt defined by this tragedy. It became the central part of me. The absence of my brother consumed me. I tried to integrate myself into his life; I cozied up to his friends,I started listening to punk music and drinking PBR, I wore his leather jacket, I got my septum pierced. I wanted to merge myself with him. To keep him alive through my imitation of him. My brother was all I could think about. My life felt dark and empty, I never thought I would be truly happy again. As horrible as his death was and as much as it hurt me, I began to glamorize the tragedy of it all. This seemingly normal girl was interesting now. My dead brother made me unique. I started to see it as the most interesting part of me. But it was something only I would let myself see. My tragedy was my secret. I clung to the pain of him because it was all I had left. I was no longer normal, I knew that. I was now the girl with the dead brother.
THE GIRL WITH HER LIFE TOGETHER
Despite the sadness screaming inside me, I refused to let myself disolve into a broken pile of melancholy. I held on tightly to the identity of being normal. It was the only person I knew how to be. After all, I had been her for most of my life. And so, I continued to be a portrait of a girl who doesn't need to be taken care of. A girl whose parents don't worry about because she has her life together. Normal people don't carry around the weight of a dead brother so I chose to keep my tragedy a secret from every new person I met, I couldn't be defined by something they knew nothing about. I was afraid to show the real me to anyone. I was living in deep suffocating sadness all the time, I felt like a section of my heart was missing, my future felt dark and empty. I was trying to be happy, but I just couldn't feel it. I was afraid if people saw what my insides looked life, they would get bored with me. Who wants to be around someone who is sad all the time? I was like the heaviness that clung to the air of every situation. I was in so much pain, but still, didn't want to be seen as a girl who was suffering her way through grief. I wore a mask of a girl with her life together and I only let myself fall apart in secret. I faked normalcy through my responsibilities and then I spent all my free time isolating myself in the company of my depression. Although coping with the unexpected death of my brother was never in my life plan, I refused to lessen the expectations I placed on myself. I took eighteen credits a semester even though twelve would have allowed me to graduate on time, I got involved in positions in my sorority, I took on internship after internship. I stayed in New York alone over the summers instead of back in Rhode Island in the company of my loved ones. I studied abroad in London, I worked full time at a restaurant and I graduated Magna Cum Laude from college. To the outside world I looked like someone who had their life together, someone who was even succeeding, but I was detached from the accomplishment of it all because I knew that wasn't the real me. The real me was broken, decaying inside, missing pieces, stained with unworthiness. I got so good at pretending to be okay, that I fooled everyone around me into believing that I was. But I was no longer able to fool myself.
THE SAD DARK DEPRESSED GIRL
After college, and a brief out-patient stint in a psychiatric hospital, I moved to Brooklyn with my best friend from childhood. That is where I finally surrendered to the darkness inside me. It was like the lid came off of everything I had buried deep within me, and it all started started to spill out violently, and I collapsed. I could no longer pretend to be okay, for my demons refused to remain hidden. My depression started to engulf me. I binged often, eating until it became painful, and then eating some more. I gained fifty pounds in eight months. Getting drunk became a daily activity. I Isolated myself from everyone preferring the company of my sad little world. All I ever wanted to do was nothing. I saw myself as the sad dark depressed girl. That's who I was now and I saw no way of escaping, the storm inside me was too powerful. I tried everything to get better; medication, therapy, dieting, meditation, writing, self-help books, religion, I moved back home to Rhode Island, I moved to LA. But wherever I went, the sad dark depressed girl followed. Sometimes I would feel okay. Sometimes days strung together and I would think maybe I'm becoming someone else, but the darkness was always there waiting to pull me back in, and I always let it. I was addicted to the misery and I couldn't let it go. I was a broken record of promises to myself that tomorrow I am going to act differently. Tomorrow I am going to behave like the girl I want to be. I just had too much heaviness inside me, I couldn't seem to move forward. It wasn't until I got sober and started to finally confront the pain inside me that I started to heal. Slowly I started to lose the identity of the sad dark depressed girl. I didn't feel like I was her anymore and I was ready to let go of this image of myself, but I was so used to my depression, it was my normal. My brain kept pulling me back to the version of me that hated herself and hated her world because it was all it had known for so long. I had to keep reminding myself that I'm not her anymore. And slowly, very slowly I started to believe it. In my diary on April 19, 2015 I wrote: "Although logically I know I can have any life I want, there is still a big part of me that doesn't believe it. I am still stuck in the past image of who I was, that sad dark depressed girl. But I don't have to be her anymore and it's time for me to start believing that. I need to let her go. So this is my goodbye letter to that sad girl. She's not serving me anymore, and so I have to let her go." It's an interresting feeling not feeling worthless anymore after you've felt that way for so long. Life is more beautiful this way.
There was a commonality that thread through me all of these years, and that was my identity of an actor. This decision I made for myself at a young age dictated all of my choices. I only applied to colleges in New York City because I thought that that's where actors needed to be. In truth, I belonged on a big campus with cheerleading and Greek Row. But I denied myself that experience in order to best fit into my identity of an actor. I got a BFA in Acting from a school I didn't particularly care for. Even though I was unhappy in New York, I signed with a manager and continued to live there because I felt that's where I needed to be if I was going to have an acting career. I then moved to LA because that's where movie stars live. I never cut my hair dramatically or died it because I needed to look like my headshots. I didn't get tattoos because I felt I needed to look nuetral in order to fit into other people's skin. I felt enormous pressure to lose weight after being told again and again that I am too heavy for the sort of roles I'm right for. I waitress even though it makes me unhappy because it is a financially profitable job that allows for a flexible schedule and to have my days free to audition. All my decisions were made based upon my identity of an actor. I felt trapped this very specific box unable to explore who I am outside of this career. I lived life based on the expectations and demands of this identity, not by my own rules. The more I lived in this identity the more hopeless I felt. My love for acting had started to fade, and something I was once in love with it started to feel more like a chore. But still I clung onto this idea that that's what I wanted for myself. I had been this person for so long, I felt like if I let her go, I would be lost. But I was severely unhappy. I felt hopeless. Like my life was never going to change. I didn't know if I still wanted to be an actor or if I just clung to the idea because it's who I am and what I've thought I wanted for myself for so long. All I knew is that the way I was going about life wasn't working. And so I started entertaining the idea of not being an actor. I tried to quiet my mind enough to listen to what my heart was telling me. I tried to feel the answer in my body. Did this decision feel right? I let my mind drift to the endless variations of lives I could have. It was terrifying. I had already made so many sacrifices for this dream, I didn't know if I was capable of letting it go. But then I said it out loud. "I don't know if I want to be an actor anymore". And then I told my mom. And I felt this enormous weight lift off my shoulders. I felt the chains of confinement come off my wrists and hope blossomed inside me. I was free. Free to be myself. But then it hit me, if I'm not an actor, then who the fuck am I and what do I want?
After high school, I took on the identity of an actor and I never let myself explore anything else. I created an outline of how my life would look and I tried my best to follow it. Stripped of my identity and my map now obsolete, I don't know who I am or what I want. I've never given myself the freedom to figure it out, instead I demanded I be the idea of something I created in my head. Now I could be anyone. I can get tattoos, I can travel, I can stop waitressing, I can eat pizza and not feel guilty! What a life! But the problem is - or perhaps it's a magical gift - I don't know what I want anymore. But now, I have finally allowed myself permission to try a bunch of different things until I figure it out. I know I love writing and I love comedy improv and I want to follow that happiness, but I don't know what that will turn into. I'm detaching myself from the results and trying to fall in love with the journey. I'm letting myself believe in the endless possibilities of life. I want to feel peace and happiness and faith sprout from my insides and create a garden on my skin. Another startling thought hit me; if I don't want to act anymore or at least not Hollywood movie star kind of acting, then I don't need to be in LA anymore. After all, I was only here because of the career opportunities. Without an acting career dictating where I live, I can go anywhere. I certainly don't have anything keeping me in LA; no family, no relationship, no career, no mortgage. If I was going to pick up and leave, now was the time. I'm not happy in LA, and as much as I love the city, I feel I'd like to have a new adventure somewhere else. But where would I like to go? I've always thought I'd love Portland. I've heard great things about Seattle. Or maybe I'll become a nomad, traveling the world and writing about it. I don't know where I'll end up, but I know I want to try someplace new. I feel lost and excited all at the same time. Inside me are swirls of contradictory emotions I can't find the words to define. But this is what I now know; I'm Claudia and I always will be. No matter how many masks I try on my soul will always be mine, in perpetuity. I was never able to find an identity that felt comfortable to me, because in truth, we are all too complex to be limited to words and boxes. I am simply Claudia, and that is enough for me.