A significant portion of my childhood was squandered on the question of who I am. Little did I know it back then, but I broke the question down into one of ontology—what I am, the question of a sense of identity, of the labels that I could slap on myself in order to recognize something comprehensible, predictable.
Over the years up until around the age of sixteen, I sought for myself a role—student, leader, confidant—that I could weave into a sensible narrative of my life. The roles were labels of purpose. I am a mentee, therefore I take advisement from my mentor; I am a child, therefore I follow the rules of my parents. Roles came with particular sets of duties and responsibilities that I had to fulfill, and my worth as Someone rested on my ability to fulfill those duties and handle those responsibilities.
At first it was an intrapersonal concern—aspirations, what I wanted to become and how to become that. The roles expanded into paths that I could take in life. I wanted to be a preacher, so I read the sacred texts; I wanted to be a scientist, so I messed around with toothpaste and corn starch. I rarely looked beyond my own ambitions, such that it was difficult to see what the roles all had in common. It was at age twelve that I realized the underlying goal of all the roles I wanted for myself—I wanted to help people, in some way, in some capacity.
It was an emotional night when my mother confronted me about my steadily declining grades. It turned out to be one of those hour-long arguments that I ended up blocking out for the most part, but I remember that it concluded with both of us in tears, embracing each other against the words “people are important to me” escaping with my voice. I carried that with me through the Who Am I and paradoxically built walls to protect my sense of self.
The goal was to help people, and I needed to take on roles that would affirm the importance of people. I wanted to be a doctor, so I asked people where it hurt; I wanted to be a journalist, so I asked people about their issues. My own growth hinged on my ability to fulfill a role that would help others. It was only later on—maybe I was twenty—that I confronted my neediness. I needed people so much that I lost focus on what I needed for myself. Validation for the Who Am I came from others, because if I looked inward, I was being selfish—at least, I thought so.
Even now, I struggle with emancipating validation for the Who Am I from the sense of self-worth I derive from helping others. Friends I hold to high regard often have to remind me to take care of myself, and even now, it barely registers. I suppose I have been keeping my eyes out for others so long I forget how to treat my own wounds. Even as a medic, I would pack medical supplies for others, refusing to use any of them on myself. I could take it even when my teammates could not, I reckon I figured. It was more important for me that other people were doing okay.
Looking back, I realize that maybe I was not doing okay myself. I have been neurotic for as long as I can remember, and my emotionality has given me strong experiences—in good flavors as in bad. At twenty-one, I chanced upon the thought that my emotions are often uncontrollable—I would laugh when I should have been crying, cry when I should have been yelling, and yelling when I should have been somber. Something about my emotions render feelings vague—anger, joy, and sadness are all rooted in the same source for me. It just becomes a matter of how strongly I feel them all together, or how little I feel of any.
Sometimes I think of myself as a mess of circuitry, electricity coursing through my being. Somewhere in the barrage of processors, my feelings and emotions were cross-wired, or otherwise irreparably entangled that I could no longer distinguish them from each other. If I were to cut or otherwise mess with any one of those wires, I would risk cutting off all emotion—possibly severing my ability to empathize. That would be bad; I do not want that.
The image of an electrical plug comes to mind—the three-pronged one. Two daggers complete the main circuit, and a round prong grounds any excess electricity. Whereas the daggers connect me to the world, the round prong grounds me should anything unforeseen or otherwise overpowering attempt to enter the circuitry.
I had inklings of what this grounding mechanism was in my life when I was thirteen, but it was only at eighteen that I was able to figure a name for it—support system, I called it. At first it was a select set of close friends on whom I could rely; they would effectively ground me whenever I was whelmed over my threshold. The Who Am I was complemented by their Who Are You To Me—sibling to sibling, confidant to confidant, fellow to fellow. Over time, the core set of friends has changed some, but the support is there.
Over time, my support system also came to include particular behavioral and thought patterns that got me through certain hells. In order to defend myself from personal attacks at work, I use professionalism as a shield; in order to deal with abandonment, I cut people out, preemptively.
I am not completely sure about defense mechanisms, but I am somewhat sure that I do employ them on occasion, often unknowingly. I often feel bad about having to subject my friends to this.
Every so often, I run away. Sometimes I fixate so much on the feelings that I forget the Who Am I and seek refuge in the Who Are You To Me. Whenever I run away, I make it a point to contact someone or to tell someone of my whereabouts, because if the support system is to work, it needs information. Sometimes the support system gives me a miracle, and I have somewhere directional to run to, but most of the time, the running is aimless—just away and never toward until the restlessness is out of my system.
I suppose the Who Am I is diminishing in its salience to me, whereas the emotions have the ability to overwhelm my sense of self, potentially revealing some hidden aspect of myself that I overlooked in the labeling of things. Sometimes the thought of not liking who I am comes to mind, but then such a thought is easily pushed aside by the idea that who I am does not matter, because how I feel will often shape how I understand myself.