I have a confession to make: I’m always a little shocked when I hear rumours about myself.

It’s not that there aren’t reasons for rumours to circulate about me, because there are. Most of them are crap, and those don’t bother me much. But others involve some aspect of my past or my personal life, and that another person has labeled me a “bad person” or someone not worth knowing because of a mistake I’ve made in my life, or a way of life I used to embrace.

Last night, after the book release party, I was sitting around with a group of friends, and the topic of mean people we used to know came up. One of them is someone who would almost compulsively tell lies and spread rumours, always commenting on the lives of others, in addition to making up extraordinary claims about his own that clearly were not true. After laughingly telling some friends what this person had been saying about them (ridiculous speculation that wasn’t true, and would be none of this guy’s business, even if it was), a friend of mine told me what this guy had said about me.

At first, he was too embarrassed to even relate the gossip. When he did, I was absolutely shocked. The long and short of the gossip was “Stay away from Alayna, because she’s bad news.”. Some of the reasons he gave were absolutely true, some were ridiculously false, and others were assumptions that might make sense if you’re trying to piece together a mystery, but actually not what happened in the story of my life.

The surprising part was not that this ex-acquaintance was into gossip and rumours and lies, or that I should somehow be exempt from that when nobody else was, but that there were enough elements of truth in there that someone might actually believe the gossip. It also shocked me to realise the friend who heard the gossip had just kept it to himself, perhaps for a year or two or three.

It shocks me how utterly non-confrontational people are. For instance, if I hear a rumour that years ago, someone I think of as a good friend was a drug dealer, hung out with a rough crowd, and got arrested, I’m probably going to ask my friend about it. (no, that’s not the rumour I heard about me. :P ) I’m not just going to speculate, try to find information on Google, or run a background check on them. I’m also not going to suddenly stop talking to them, stop inviting them to things, or tell all my friends about this story behind the person’s back.

If it turns out the rumours are all true, I’m also not going to give a shit. I realise that people have past histories, have made mistakes, have all traveled a rough road in life, and not everything is fodder for public consumption. Some things, you only tell your very best friends. Some things, you don’t *even* tell your best friends.

I don’t judge people based on their past choices, nor on their future paths and how that might be incompatible with my own. If I care about someone, it’s based on who they are now, the ways that knowing that person makes my life better, and simple love, respect, friendship, and admiration. I do not assume that because someone behaved a certain way at one point in life, he or she is at the same stage of life. I also don’t dismiss people, whether in close friendships or romantic relationships, because our futures aren’t “heading in the same direction” or because someone “isn’t the right kind of person for me”. You just never know what the future will hold, and while you can’t ever erase the past, you can learn and grow from it.

What I’ve learned is that people are really hung up on the idea of the past, as well as preconceptions of the future, in such a way that it leads to missing out on people and experiences in the present. Every time you’d rather judge and gossip and think yourself somehow superior to another person because of something they’ve done in life, a choice they’ve made, a tough experience they’ve survived, or even a rumour you’ve heard, you’re missing out on knowing someone who might teach you about the world, open your eyes to a new perspective. Every time you turn down the opportunity to let someone new into your life because you ultimately want different things, are at different places in your lives, have very different personalities or goals or ambitions, or simply because you’re afraid that person won’t be there at some point in life or will affect you in a way that leaves you hurt and vulnerable, you’re potentially missing out on a soulmate, or an experience that will significantly touch your life.

Life isn’t static, and people are always changing and evolving. Yes, sometimes people don’t learn from their life experiences, and they are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over again. Sometimes people are selfish and don’t mature, don’t evolve, don’t find a higher level of meaning in life and connection in relationships. I’d like to think most people do…and the person you judge today may just be the person who will teach you the most about yourself. The person you dismiss as never being the kind of person that would fit into your future life plan may actually be the one to lead you to your true future life plan. Everything is constantly changing, and the only thing you can really know about another person is who they are, how they affect you, how you feel about them, and what they bring to your life today. Even the most harshly judgmental of people can’t claim to be affected by what another person did before ever even meeting that person. Even the most intuitive of people can’t claim to know how someone is destined to fit into any sort of future life path in six months, or a year, or five. Most people aren’t who they were a decade ago, and will not be the same person a decade from now.

Perhaps what a person makes you feel now is negative, and it’s not rooted in any sense of judgment about the past or assumptions about the future. That’s perfectly valid. People aren’t meant to like every person they encounter, and even the most open-minded people aren’t designed to tolerate every person they encounter. However, I firmly believe that unless someone has wronged you personally, spreading rumours and digging up dirt and whispering about someone, is uncalled for. Even when someone has wronged you, doing this rarely accomplishes much—even though we all do it. In my experience, it doesn’t make you feel any less hurt or angry about the situation, and you may just get a taste of your own medicine where Karma is involved.

Sometimes, the best thing to do with rumours is to put them out on the table, to confront the person you’ve heard something about and ask them what the story is. As in the situation last night, where we all sat and admitted to the rumours we’d heard about one another via this one person, we found out that people we’ve been friends with for years had never found it appropriate to bring up “Oh, I heard something negative about you”. Here in Atlanta, confronting someone about a rumour or a disagreement is seen as aggressive and not the way someone should behave, giving people even more reason to talk. However, telling others a rumour or discussing why you don’t like someone else, while refusing to talk to that person or acknowledge them in public beyond frosty civility, is perfectly normal. Perhaps people think that if everyone just confronted everyone else about gossip, rumour, and “why I don’t like you”, it would turn into Jerry Springer or an episode of the Real Housewives Of Whatever.

In my personal experience, this rarely happens. It is possible to learn from people and understand people, even people you don’t like—or somehow *think* you don’t like. It is possible that the person who seems so opposite of you and has traveled a much different road in life isn’t all that different. Yet, you only discover this when you truly get to know people, when you let go of the judgment attached to what you know of someone’s past, or how you see someone’s future.

Gossip and rumour and exaggerated stories will never die. It’s human nature for people to talk about one another. However, it is almost always true that every story you hear consists of “What Person A said, what Person B said, and a truth that lies somewhere in the middle.” It’s also human nature to judge someone as being “too different to be friends” or “not the type of person I’m looking for in my life” before ever really knowing that person.

What I’ve learned over the past year, what the world seems for me to want to learn, is how much of a disservice that does, not only to another person, but to yourself. I’ve made some really valuable friendships in 2012 with people I wouldn’t have seen myself wanting to connect with, even a year ago. At the same time, I’ve seen people I thought were friends for quite some time drift out of my life, as if we never really knew one another. I’ve learned that the person who just “isn’t my type” not only might be, but is more like me than expected. I’ve learned that the person I judge at face value as representing a lifestyle or set of values I don’t share might not only become one of my favourite people with whom to spend time, but someone I easily understand and relate to. I’ve learned the value of one-on-one conversation, and what “real” friendship means. I’ve learned that some people aren’t going to just walk away, even if they’re the type that’s wired to do so, simply because they care about you. I’ve also learned that people aren’t going to take down walls and let you into their lives just because you have fun going out and being social. You really have to invest time and effort into other people, if you want the favour returned. Sometimes, it doesn’t work out for the best, and that hurts. But more often than not, it’s an investment that more than improves your life.

I’ve also learned that old rumours never die, and the past doesn’t disappear. Sometimes, I think I’d have an easier time of it if I didn’t live in a city that functions like a small town, where everyone seems to be connected to everyone else, somehow, and talking about others is a social pastime. However, I also know that if you have a social circle anywhere, even in the biggest cities, you’ll still run into people you’d rather forget you once knew—and those people aren’t always going to be kind or forgiving or shy about sharing everything negative they know about you (while often omitting the positive.) Sometimes, those people will be. A friend reminded me recently that there were two options when people can’t seem to get over gossiping about you or judging you or speculating about you: you can either feel hurt and humiliated and hide yourself away because you can’t cope with the idea that others just don’t like you, or you can own everything about you, and continue to put yourself out there–which is often why people don’t like you in the first place.

It’s difficult, but I choose the second. I’ve never been one to disappear and back down. Yet, for someone as sensitive as I am, the things I hear are hurtful, the things others have said are brutal. It’s not high school, it’s real life, and it may be something I have to cope with throughout my life, and I do really hope I’m strong enough to live in a world where there are people who dislike me, sometimes to the point where they *want* to see me hurt and make me feel unwelcome. If someone confronts me about a rumour, I tell the truth, and if someone cares to judge me for the truth, I have to put that back on them. If someone decides I’m not the sort of person they’d like to spend time with, I have to respect that, even if it hurts.

All that being said, I could never be a celebrity. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have people talking about you and judging you incessantly. What I have learned is that the comments regarding the truth hit harder than the comments about things that are blatantly false, and passive-aggressiveness really gets under my skin. I’ve also come to realise that apparently, everyone talks about everyone else, and that’s just part of how the world works. Yet, it never fails to shock me when what I hear is about me.

Hi, I’m Alayna, and I’m a victim of bullying.

No, I’m not a teenager. I’m an independent, vivacious woman who realises high school was literally half a lifetime ago, and should have more important things to worry about than who says what and why. Also, the perpetrator of these disruptive acts isn’t a person, place, or thing, but a mindset. I’m being bullied by a way of looking at the world that too many people agree with, and for most of my adult life, I’ve suffered because of that.

I didn’t have many experiences as a little kid or an adolescent that involved bullying, either being bullied by someone, or bullying someone else. I was always fairly popular, amiable enough, and the worst things I ever had to worry about were “mean girl” rumours, the kind of nonsense I both helped create, and received. Despite living my life in one very large city or another until the time I was 27 and found myself in the suburbs, the only physical confrontation I’ve ever had with another person is when a drunk girl from my university found me at a bar, accused me of messing with her boyfriend, and punched me square in the face. I hit her with a bottle, and we all got kicked out of the bar, because nobody was going to call the cops on two suburban-looking Caucasian females with a combined body weight and stature that still doesn’t equal the average bouncer.

In fact, I don’t think I’d recognise bullying if it came up and introduced itself, because I guess I’m just the product of a slightly different generation and mindset than the world has today. I’m not very judgmental. I proudly call myself a liberal. I’m a little weird, a little unconventional, and accept everyone else is too. Granted, I might at some point say something behind your back. However, it’s never anything I wouldn’t say to your face. If someone has heard something that’s the type of remark I just wouldn’t ever make to you or in your presence, it’s a good indicator I didn’t say it. I’ve always been a “What you see is what you get” kind of person, and while I have my share of secrets, skeletons in the closet, and things about me that are just nobody’s business, I can also be very open and approachable once we’ve become friends. Sadly, I repeatedly get myself hurt by stuff that is whispered behind my back, people choosing to ostracize me, or other passive-aggressive types of behaviour.

The other day, The Guy I Am Currently Dating mentioned that some of these things I’ve dealt with—and am still dealing with—are a lot like the bullying that goes on in high school. It’s just somehow a more grown-up version. And, while I’m not really the kind of person who would ever say “Life is picking on me and it’s not fair”, I certainly do feel that way sometimes. Part of the reason I share everything with everyone, and approach conflict in a way that seems “aggressive” to some people, and make a big deal about making sure even the most minor thing has no ill-intention is that I’m remarkably thin-skinned. I don’t know how to defend myself against people who hate me, judge me, and refuse to forgive me for transgressions, or prefer to form an opinion of me at face value, or through the rumour mill. Those things all affect me more than they affect the average person, and they always have. I’ve been told I need to grow up, become less sensitive, take things less seriously, grow a thicker skin…so, like everyone, I have some well-defined defense mechanisms against being hurt. These typically include keeping people at arm’s length until I feel I can trust them, snarky remarks that are sometimes disguised as humour but have a grain of truth, and asking people if and why they have a problem with me, rather than just assuming one way or the other. I don’t excel at brushing things off or letting things go.

“Karma Is A Bitch, And Sometimes You Deserve What You Get.”

While this is true, I think there are limits. When I was 26, I went through a very tough experience in my life where all my dirty little secrets were outed and judged, courtesy of people I thought were my friends. While what happened to me is never behaviour I will understand or forgive, I’ve had to acknowledge my role in the situation. I didn’t treat my so-called “friends” any better than they treated me. I was making choices that might potentially cause hurt feelings or destroy the emotional stability of people I didn’t even know, and I wasn’t even thinking about it. I was largely going through life with an “I can say and do whatever I want” attitude designed not to let anyone get too close, and at the same time, enjoyed being popular and the center of a social circle.

The fallout from all my dirty laundry being aired was huge. People I didn’t really know in other cities heard gossip and stories. Some of them never met me, but hated me. Some of them never met me, but suddenly wanted to. I got kicked out of my apartment, lost almost all of my friends, and had absolutely nothing. When I entered a room, someone was whispering somewhere. I got e-mails that, more than once, made me wonder if life was even worth living. I didn’t really socialise with anyone or consider anyone a friend for three months.

Of course, life goes on, and every time you get knocked down, you rebuild. However, when you say things like that, when you say “Whatever, I’m a survivor. I’m strong.”, it implies that you’re less emotionally affected by life than you really are. I’ve been devastated, and my heart has been fractured so many times, it will probably never be capable of the kind of love and innocence I once believed in.

I had to take responsibility for my own behaviour, and realise I’d invited some of the bad karma and bullying into my life. I did, and I figured it was time to move on. Every time I felt hurt and “bullied”, I rationalised that I probably deserved it, even if not for the reasons others thought.

Statute Of Limitations

The problem is that karma may balance eventually. However, bullying like that doesn’t end. Six years have passed, and just recently, I happened to hear that someone was choosing not to be friends with me because of things they’d heard about me. Coincidentally, at the same time, I learned that someone from my past was now living in the city, socializing with some of the same people I know.

When I was 21, I made some bad life choices. I treated people badly. I treated someone badly even though I loved him immensely, and moving on from a relationship never hurt like that before, or since. I behaved in a selfish and callous way in order to survive and get what I thought I wanted and needed. I hurt people. There were consequences to all of that, including having to learn what the inside of a jail cell looked like, and that I was nowhere near as tough as I thought I was. I was just a scared girl out of her element who made some bad choices, ignoring the negative consequences to herself or anyone else.

I’ll always have to live with that year of my life that ruined everything. I could blame it on the ways in which the world hurt me, the need to survive on my own in a world that just didn’t care about me, on life not being fair…but I don’t. I admit to being young and stupid, and doing selfish, hurtful things. There were consequences. I had to accept those and live with those.

Over a decade later, I am not the same person. Who is? Who hasn’t changed and grown since their 21st birthday? Yet, there are still people who assume I am, that my past mistakes define me always and forever, and that my character is irredeemable.

The choices that I made later in my 20′s, while I regret the fallout from many of them and that I was so self-centred I forgot to feel empathy for others, or to ever really connect with others—I don’t apologise for the unconventional life path I traveled upon. And when all that unconventionality was “outed”, and I was constantly confronted and expected to feel shame, or move out of the city, or never dare to show my face in a social circle anywhere again, it seems my greatest crime was that I didn’t. I was not ashamed enough, I did not dislike myself enough, I had the audacity to keep on going with my life and rebuild.

Guess what, people? I didn’t always dislike myself. Since that period of my life, I struggle to find any semblance of self-esteem and self-acceptance in a world I believe will never understand my present, forgive my past, or want to be a part of my journey in the future. Your “bullying” tore me down more than you’ll ever know. I’m even more cautious and distrustful about letting others into my life. On my worst days, I probably see myself exactly as you see me. I just have too much pride to let you see me cry. It doesn’t mean there are wounds that just won’t heal, because every time I get there, someone shows up to re-open them.

Being “Reserved” Is Not The Same As “Betrayal”

I didn’t choose the life that most people would choose. I chose a way of life that varies between “unconventional” and “hopelessly immoral”, depending who you are. But I never asked for judgment on my life path. It shocks me when, many years later, I hear gossip and cruel words that have to do with things that were always intended to be a part of my private life. It is not my fault that others could not forgive my choices, and felt I was so worthy of judgment that my private life should become public business. In fact, I think those who chose to do that to me should be judged as harshly as they judge me. I would never open someone’s closet, let the skeletons fall out, and then circulate all the gory details for public consumption.

Doing that isn’t a minor thing. It isn’t revenge for being hurt or not liking someone. It isn’t an acceptable way of saying “People like you don’t belong in our world”. Those actions destroy lives. People have committed suicide over similar issues with gossip and scandal and ostracism. In my viewpoint, it’s one of the worst things you could ever do to someone.

Some of the rationale I’ve received is that people felt betrayed by me because I had secrets. Everyone has secrets. Everyone has a private life. The reason we’re so into melodramas like “Desperate Housewives” and reality TV shows is because, behind closed doors, most of us live lives that wouldn’t withstand public scrutiny and the harsh, unreasonable judgment that goes along with it. Ask almost every politician and his/her family.

We live in a world where “freedom of information” means everyone is entitled to know everything about everyone else, and if you’re not going to open up about that time you got arrested, the kinky sex club you went to, the affair you’re having, that time you stole something from someone, or lied to someone to get your way, or manipulated something out of greed or jealousy or ambition, you’re the kind of person who deserves to be judged…and frequently, and harshly. And for the rest of your life.

I am sorry, but there are some things I don’t feel you are entitled to know. Despite this blog, despite my openness as a person, I actually have a very private and vulnerable side few people see. I am, in many ways, more traditional than you might expect. I am, in many ways, more loving and more compassionate than you might expect. If you judged me solely via the stories you’ve heard and the notoriety my less-than-diminuitive personality has brought about, you’d likely be surprised when you got to know me as a real person, one-on-one. It is a pity that because of judgments and stories and rumours, so many people will never have the interest or the opportunity in knowing that person.

There is a point when that relentless judgment, cruelty, and ostracism will break a person, and sometimes, I think the only reason it hasn’t broken me is because I have too much pride. I am too special to be broken that easily, and I’m sorry if the world doesn’t agree. But there’s also a point where the attempts to do so becomes a form of bullying.

When The Guy I Am Currently Dating gets anonymous e-mails alluding to my past, or someone actively tries to destroy my relationships because they judge me not worthy of love, that is bullying. When The Guy I Am Currently Dating’s mother leaves me abusive telephone messages and letters telling me I’m white trash and Casey Anthony and deserve to die, that’s bullying. When some girl I don’t even know calls me fat and arrogant and a liar, that’s bullying. When someone who is supposed to be my friend tells me they’re tired of hearing me whine about being sick to others on FB, because it’s presumptuous of me to think everyone cares, that’s bullying. When the neighbour gets an attitude and goes all ghetto on me about my dog pooping on the sidewalk and refuses to back down until I clean up the entire front yard, even though my dog didn’t do it, that’s bullying. When I can’t hang out with people whose company I enjoy because their group of friends won’t tolerate my presence, that’s bullying…and particularly hurtful when I don’t even know why. But most of all, when people bring up dirt about me from five or ten years ago and share it with people they barely know, people who then refuse to give me the time of day, that’s bullying.

Have I made mistakes in my life? Sure. Did I do stupid and destructive things as a kid? Absolutely. Did I take a life path in my 20′s that was largely self-centred and something other people may not agree with? Definitely. But I’ve paid the consequences for my mistakes, I’ve gotten my own karma, I’ve had to grow up and move on.

My question is, when is it time for everyone else to do the same?

Believe it or not, I’m actually a pretty decent person. I stopped hating the world, got over my self-destructive bullshit, learned to have healthy relationships with other human beings, admitted to my mistakes and took the lumps that were coming to me, and grew as a human being. So, why do I still deserve the gossip and the ostracism and the “I just don’t like you?” and the judgment from people I barely know?

I Am Not Perfect

Nope, I am not perfect. Far from it. I may be the most complex, fucked-up human being on the planet. I may also be one of the most loving, caring, empathetic, life-loving, experience-embracing people you’ll ever meet. I am overly sensitive, overly insecure, and having to be strong in the face of so much meant to tear down anything I might value about myself has taken a decade-long toll on me.

No excuses, though. I still do things I shouldn’t, say things I shouldn’t. I still could do some work on being a more tactful, amiable human being. I still could learn the world doesn’t revolve around me and there are times to keep my damn mouth shut. I still could learn that words don’t just hurt me, so I need to own what comes out of my own mouth.

I have a friend I’ve known for at least 5 years…at least, we’re social friends, and I always considered us as such. We had some good times together. Last time I saw her, I got a vibe that she didn’t much care for my presence. In fact, I felt deliberately ignored, and while most people would let that go, I’m pretty intuitive.

I mentioned it to a mutual friend, who said she’d ask if this friend was mad at me. I declined the offer, because I don’t want to be that confrontational, oversensitive person who thinks the world is always out to get her. However, it’s not paranoia if something’s really going on, and I’m usually right.

So, when I saw this friend in person, I asked her. I give her credit for being a straight-shooter who doesn’t mince words or behave passive-aggressively. So, I asked her if I did something, and if so, what it was. It turns out, I did. I had made snarky comments that weren’t appreciated, and she said it wasn’t worth being mad about, she was just over it.

During the time I’ve known her, she’s always been the type to make her own share of snarky comments, and when one of them happens to be at my expense, I put on an exaggerated sad face and ask why she’s mean to me. I’ve never taken any of it seriously, seen it as drama or passive-aggressive behavior. I thought it was just how we agreed to relate to each other. I kind of started to see it as an inside joke. I mean, when people attend your birthday parties, and you visit their house, and you amicably travel in the same social circle, you know someone isn’t really mean to you…and you assume they know your snarky comments are similarly meant to be drama-free.

As it turns out, that was not the case. She told me she never appreciated it, never thought it was funny, and was over it. I appreciated her candour, and did the right thing. I apologised for my snarky remarks, and for being unaware for literally years that they weren’t coming across the way I thought they were. What I saw as just the odd way we related, she found irritating and emotionally tiring.

I never would have known if I hadn’t bothered to ask her how she was feeling, and what changed between us. I didn’t turn the tables on her, and say, “You say snarky things, too…are they serious, or have they always been a joke?” My behaviour was not enjoyable for her to be around, and when that’s the case, you have to be an adult and own it. So, I apologised. I apologised to her husband for any unintentional rudeness he may have also picked up from me. Apologies were accepted, and life goes on.

Nobody’s perfect, and just because sometimes, you feel bullied by life and treated obnoxiously by your fellow human beings doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity to be equally obnoxious, rude, or tiresome. Sometimes, people change and grow, and something that used to be funny just seems immature and a waste of time. Sometimes, how you behave isn’t as cute or endearing as you think that it is.

That’s why I ask people if something’s wrong when I perceive a change in how they’re acting around me. While that can be a little exhausting if you’re an introvert who’s chosen to date me or is a really close friend, and I firmly acknowledge that, for everyone else, it has a 90% success rate. If I sense something is up, it usually is. Where I have a problem is accepting that someone doesn’t want to tell me, or is only willing to tell others behind my back.

When I am wrong, I apologise. I don’t go through other people. I don’t gossip or send someone else to ask if you’re mad or why I don’t get warm and fuzzy feelings. I don’t create a scene. I just want to sit and talk about it, and if I owe someone an apology, they’ll get it.

It is hard for me to understand why more people don’t approach things that way. Instead, I know people who have stopped speaking to me and refuse to acknowledge my existence, and I only ever have hints of “why” through the rumour mill. And, somehow, finding things out that way catches me off-guard, makes me feel shocked and vulnerable, and truly hurts.

Nobody likes to be blindsided, and nobody likes to be judged or a popular punching bag, or topic of discussion. Especially since, when it comes down to it, nobody is perfect.

I try really hard to like who I am, and be content with that person. The last thing I want is people in my Universe who want to make it harder for me to do so. It’s tough to realise your personality and your lifestyle and your past history makes you as objectionable to many as it makes you feel loved by others.

It’s a pill I’ve been trying to swallow for 10 years, and this weekend, I still felt sad and overwhelmed by it. Perhaps human nature is just a force bigger than me, and it is always going to win, or perhaps I just live in the wrong place for me. I wonder, had I been a better person, had I followed the conventional route, made the same choices as most other people, would I be more well-liked? Would I be happier? Would I be more open, and feel less like it’s necessary to guard myself with sarcasm and one-liners, and only talk about certain pieces of my life journey? Would I be the kind of girl that Southern mothers want their sons to end up with, or would they still think me a loud, trashy bitch?

Or would I just have led a more sheltered existence that denied me the ability to look at the world and people in it a little differently than others?

I’ve been dealing with the consequences of hurting others as a stupid 21 year old for a decade. Even when the worst thing I did was choose an unconventional and wild life path, my penance was years of harsh and unforgiving judgment. I don’t consider myself strong, but I know I must be in some way, because I’ve somehow survived and never backed down.

When will I be strong enough that words don’t hurt, that whispers mean nothing, that silent judgment doesn’t affect my life? Am I lacking something everyone else naturally has, or is life just asking a little much from me?

Recently, a friend of mine wrote about feeling stuck in “limbo”, as he is between major projects in his life. On one side of the coin, he’s proud of all the hard work he’s put in and all the successful things he’s created and the sense of joy and well-being he’s brought into the lives of others. On the other hand, he writes about feeling ambitious without direction, or struggling with a desire to create and do and be, without any particular ambition.

As the holiday season descends upon us, I can relate to that. Part of me wants to feel rather depressed because since October, I’ve gotten “downsized” from the company I spent the past two years with, and my only other long-term, independent contracting position has come to a conclusion. As is the case when working with start-ups, at some point, they too struggle with money to make their vision come alive, and need to put your creative work on the shelf for awhile. Sometimes, they come back. Other times, the hiatus is permanent. As a result, this has been one of the most financially-challenged holidays I’ve spent in years. Strangely, though, I don’t feel depressed. Perhaps I *should*, but I don’t feel bummed about not visiting my family for the holidays, not buying extravagant gifts, not shopping online for pretty dresses and shoes. Perhaps I’m lacking in holiday spirit, as well as ambition. I’m well aware that December is a crappy time to be job-seeking, and I have a number of friends in a number of industries who are waiting until the New Year to really crank up the job search.

On the other hand, it isn’t as if I haven’t been doing anything productive at all. I’ve been writing rather dull piece work for content mills (which I wish I could get more motivated about, but the lack of creativity just bores me in a way that’s become painful.) I’m releasing/publishing my first book of poetry in December, planning a ton of fabulous events for my Meetup, and spending more time catching up with people in my life that I care about. I only wish I had the financial resources to do so, and not stress out about it. I’ll be celebrating my birthday, Christmas, New Year’s, a good friend’s wedding, and a bunch of other things that remind me “Hey, this is what life is about.”

I’m kind of a conundrum in that I’d like to think, perspective-wise, I have my head on fairly straight. For me, life isn’t so much about accomplishment or achievement or careers or money or accumulating material possessions. In fact, when I get into the head space where I concentrate on those things—the place where most people tell me I should be focused—not only does everything seem to go wrong seemingly out of nowhere, but I am quite unhappy and lonely as a person.

For me, life is about experience. I enjoy creating unforgettable experiences with the people close to me, even if they’re seemingly mundane. As a result, my friendships and relationships are deeper and more intense than what most people experience, and the accumulation of my life experience is fairly impressive for a person my age.

Of course, the conundrum is that a person needs some sense of financial stability, direction, and ambition to have the freedom to engage in these experiences. Especially if you’re me, and a non-driver in a city legendary for inaccessibility and urban sprawl, and live in one of the most non-pedestrian-friendly neighbourhoods possible, you need disposable income in order to leave your house and go somewhere when a friend can’t take you.

I seem to be motivated by unhappiness. When I think about a long-term relationship ending (a situation that almost occurred last week), or moving to another city where I’d essentially be alone, or having to start over again, there is some type of strength and defiance in my personality that emerges and says “I’ll do what I have to do.” However, when I am relatively happy, I often become complacent, wondering why life can’t always just be easy and happy. I like being happy, and yet, happiness does not challenge me. It is the difficult and the unexpected and the apparition of change in what I thought was a stable universe that challenges me. I don’t enjoy the challenge. In fact, I typically have a nervous breakdown, accompanied by vodka, Valium, and lots of crying. But then, I somehow start to see positive changes in my life. When I have nobody and nothing to rely on in life, I am at my strongest, while also being at my weakest.

I don’t write when I am happy. Sometimes, I think the reason I seek out complex love affairs and conflict-filled friendships and take the road less traveled–which is full of speed bumps and potholes—is because the emotional complexity, the good mixed with bad mixed with chaos, is what inspires me to create.

I’ve had my fortune read many times; palm readings, tarot cards, natal charts, numerology, and the like, because part of me believes in those sorts of things (even if another part of me can’t have much faith in anything, and dismisses it as nonsense.) One consistent thing that’s always pointed out to me is that I am supposed to be a person of great wealth. From my birth chart to my palm reading, everyone tells me, “One day, money will be of little concern to you, because you’ll have all you need”. I apparently am meant to have a much harder time with relationships, commitments, reputation, and all those other little details of life.

This always makes me laugh, because I am not practical, not good with money, not particularly ambitious in one specific direction, and not sure what I’m supposed to accomplish with my life. Also, it specifically tells me I will not have money because of an advantageous marriage or an inheritance, and that I will be the financial breadwinner for those in my life. Apparently, I am meant to somehow parlay some gift I have into money, and not just in the paycheck-to-paycheck sense.

This seems ludicrous to me, because money and independence have always been my greatest struggles, and they go hand in hand. I do not have any particular business sense. I remember, as a child, teachers writing “Your daughter is intelligent, creative, and gregarious, but like many gifted people, lacks common sense.”. I am not practical. I am not organized. I rarely make flights on time, I don’t remember to pay my bills when they’re due even if I have the money in the bank, I lose keys and sunglasses and wallets and IDs and credit cards, and then freak out. I’ve had to have my birth certificate replaced 3 times. I need a new copy of my Social Security card. Only recently, did I learn that stock certificates equal money and I should have someone manage that stuff. I wake up in the morning, and take my pills. Some days, I can’t remember if I already took my pills, or that was yesterday, and am not sure what to do. I get lost, everywhere, even with GPS and a map. I caused a kitchen fire and made the apartment smell like there was a gas leak the first time I encountered a gas stove.

I can tell what’s going on with you without anything but a conversation, or observing body language. I sense danger, and get out of the way before it happens. I know there’s someone else in your life or you’re cheating on me long before I ever catch you, and I’ve already cried over it by the time you get around to breaking my heart. Yet, I’m surprised and hurt when someone I trusted talks about me behind my back. I can put a puzzle together in record time. I assemble everything without instructions. However, I can’t hang a picture frame on the wall to save my life.

When I have something I am passionate about, I can work on it for hours and am resentful of interruption. If I don’t care about what I’m doing, even the mailman is a welcome distraction to go pay attention to something else. I seem to have the worst case of adult ADD in history.

When I plan events, I am detail-oriented and Type-A to a fault, because imperfections and “going with the flow” bothers me. Getting stuck in traffic gives me road rage, and I’m not even driving. In my normal life, someone telling me to hurry up stresses me out to no end, and I feel way more relaxed being 30 minutes late.

I am most definitely a conundrum. The things I should be stressing out about right now—money, jobs, my future, what the future holds for me, changes that may be on the horizon—I am not. Instead, I’m looking forward to the next day in my life where something fun and entertaining and amusing is going to happen. This might just be a sign “Oh, the anti-anxiety pills are working”, but wait until the first time I lose something or I can’t fit my gigantic hips into a dress I bought pre-illness-weight-gain. When that happens, World War III erupts.

Maybe it is that, somewhere deep inside, I have this intuitive feeling that in the near future, things are going to work out well for me. This, frankly, is ridiculous. Things never “work out” in my world. When left to fate, fate does not often treat me kindly. Yet, I have this feeling that keeps me from giving up and crying and walking away from things, one that tells me it’s now time to focus on different things in my life, but good things are on the horizon in my life.

I have a feeling 2013 is going to be a good year for me, and I’m not sure why. I have too many obstacles to believe that on any level that doesn’t involve either intuition or faith, and I’m sadly lacking in the second.

So, while the rest of the world is wondering if the world is going to end on December 21st, it’s more like I am preparing for a re-birth, for new beginnings and possibilities. I am not stressed about it, but open to it, and a little afraid of the unanticipated things the future may hold. But I feel like my year of “pause” is coming to an end, and not because I have completely recovered physically, or am suddenly grown-up and independent emotionally. I just feel like a slightly different person, and this person does not need things constantly, all the time, either in the form of other people or in terms of material objects. It’s a little like I’ve rediscovered pieces of someone I used to be, but forgot, because that person fell behind a curtain of illness and depression and insecurity.

I want to have fun again. I want to do things and meet people and live life and take chances without being afraid again. And, yes, I’d like to have a whole bunch of disposable income so that my $14 martinis and unique wardrobe pieces don’t send me reeling into poverty—and I don’t quite know how to get to that point from where I am now—but I don’t stay up at night trying to figure it out anymore.

I have always been extreme. People would tell me there’s this middle ground in life, where things are not either manic happiness and elation and going until you reach a point of physical exhaustion, or cause for losing all hope and feeling like the world would be better without you. I couldn’t relate to that, because I’d mistake not feeling either happy, sad, stressed, or excited with being completely bored.

I have finally learned to have days that are “just OK”, and not subsequently feel depressed because I am bored and lonely. I have learned to be in that “in-between” place in life where you don’t know what will happen next, but to get through that place by living in the present, rather than stressing about the future.

And, all in all, it mostly feels like someone saw me carrying a really heavy suitcase, and decided to help me with it for a little while. I am appreciative for feeling mostly happy, even though I have many reasons to feel other things, and to feel overwhelmed by the struggle.

I have some great people in my life, and it helps a lot. And while the process of being abandoned by the negative ones hurt greatly over the past year, I see what a positive difference it has made in my everyday life. Now, if only I could relocate myself to a place where people can get around freely and independently without a car or $12 taxi rides to the nearest subway stop, it would be a definite improvement.

“I had internalized messages during my youth—messages of being too big, too loud, too passionate.I had been told by my experiences that people stayed around longer if you made your needs as brief and palatable as possible, and then went about your day becoming exactly who they need you to be.

I remember the exact day when I realized that I could, instead, choose to be myself.”

—-Mara Glatzel,Medicinal Marzipan

Being yourself isn’t always an easy thing to do, especially in a world full of people who look at the concept as something that’s weird, scary, unconventional, or something worthy of shaking your head at disapproval. For a world full of people who all want to grow up to be celebrities for one reason or another, there’s a total lack of awareness of what it really means to put yourself out there. You know when you put yourself, or some public image of yourself, out for public consumption and people tear you down just for being you? Multiply that by tens of thousands, and that’s what it’s like to be a celebrity or public figure.

Being yourself requires you to be a strong person. Remember when someone told you, as a kid, “Be yourself, and everyone will like you?” Well, it took you five minutes of social interaction in the world to realise that person straight out lied to you. What they really meant you to learn is “Smile, conform, fit in, and pretend to be just the same as everyone else, and you’ll be accepted.”

Accepted, maybe. But will you stand out, make an impact, fulfill your dreams, make the most of your potential, take chances? Never. You’ll get sucked into a quiet comfort zone of acceptance and security, and as you grow older, that translates into a seemingly secure and traditional career path, a car you can’t really afford, a house, a spouse, a dog, a cat, and a few interests you mostly keep to yourself. If you’re young and single, you’ll spend your time looking flawless, making your life sound exciting and perfect, and remind the recently-Botoxed ladies sipping martinis at your table that you are someone to be envied. If you’re a bit older and have children, you’ll sip lattes with the even-more-recently Botoxed crowd, and smile perfectly while you point out that your child, whom you’ve named Kieran or Brendan or Madison or something that implies your child will never pick up a dirty sock in his/her life, is so far advanced for his/her age. That is life, of course. Conformity, playing nice, following the rules, and realising the reward is “I get to pretend I’m better than you whenever possible.”

When is the last time you spent time with someone, even a close friend, who stripped away all the bullshit and was completely honest, authentic, and willing to “be themselves” with you? Look around your world. It’s less common than you think, unless you intentionally make it otherwise.

I happened to, recently, cross paths with a 21-year-old sorority girl, properly coiffed dyed blonde hair and perfect manicure in place, along with an attitude that said “I’m not here for your approval”. Yet, despite my attempts at conversation, she pretty much ignored me, looking at me like I was the most boring person in the world. When, after the group had a few drinks, I turned up the charisma a little bit to include off-colour comments and snarky remarks, she actually told me “Shhhhh. People can hear you”., as if I were a five year old child in need of correction.

This girl, who tried so hard to exude enough confidence that other females would believe she wasn’t in need of any approval and loved her perfect life, was made uncomfortable by the fact that I would say anything I wanted to say without really giving a shit if a total stranger overheard me. That’s when I realised this: I am old. I don’t spend my time faking confidence and pretending to be comfortable around people. I have spent so much time “being myself” in social situations that I don’t even remember how often that can be scary and off-putting to others.

Not shockingly, she immediately re-seated herself at a dinner party to talk to the only two single, available men who were interested in making her the centre of attention, and convinced them to leave the dinner, and the rest of the group, which was too “lame” for her tastes. Prior to her re-seating herself, I’d been having conversation with these people, and it obviously didn’t occur to her that it was more rude to interrupt someone’s conversation to deflect attention to yourself than to tell a joke in a loud, boisterous tone that made old Southern women scowl at your lack of class.

Whatever. I know I’m a classy bitch. New York *totally* wants me back. :P

I remember being that girl, in some shape or form, always needing to compensate for some insecurity by making others think I was unapproachable, remaining a little aloof, to give the impression that “I’m just a little out of your league”. I would hijack your party and take people elsewhere, turning it into my party without a second thought that I was being disrespectful to the host. It didn’t occur to me that it should matter, honestly. Being that girl was a way to deflect any kind of insecurity; “As long as you pay attention to me, I have the validation I need.”

Except, the thing is, there’s never enough attention in the world to provide the validation that comes from “being yourself”.

One of the harshest things anyone ever told me, back when I was 25 or so, and still approached the entire world as my stage and every time I left my apartment, it was a public appearance…was that I wasn’t real. This actually came from someone who was sufficiently charmed by me, regardless, to invest time and energy and affection in me…so it proves men can be a little hypocritical, and still want your company when you’re 25 and attractive, “real” or not….but he said, at an event, “Every time I spend time with you, I feel like I’m spending time with a character, and not a real person.”

That person isn’t someone who I kept in my life, or I’d care to say hello to if we ever crossed paths, but he did provide me with that one sage-if-hurtful piece of advice. I knew that “being myself” was being someone who didn’t fit in here in the South, someone who was loud and boisterous and weird and flamboyant and covered herself in glitter and says “Ooooo!” to stuff a 6-year-old girl would love. So, I tried to reinvent myself, to put on a version of me that would be socially acceptable to a world I found very judgmental, very superficial, and very insecure.

Long story short: That didn’t work. That didn’t work to such an extreme I almost ended up being driven out of town by hate and judgment and gossip, about less than half of which was true.

After that, I said, “Fuck it”, and took “being myself” to a whole other extreme. If I couldn’t be accepted and perfect and flawless, I was going to shock everyone with my unconventional ways.

That was actually pretty fun, for awhile. But it also didn’t work. I felt there was nobody in my life, save a handful of people, who really knew me or cared about me. I didn’t trust anyone. And while you can combat the scandal of a bad reputation in a small town that pretends it’s a city (like Atlanta) by exaggerating your notoriety and making jokes at your own expense, at some point, you realise that what you need is a new perspective.

I never decided I was, one day, going to wake up and “be myself”. I was just too tired of caring what everyone else thought to do it anymore. And once I did, I found a whole group of people who never would have been scandalised by any of my behaviour—past, present, or future. I found friends who stuck around for years and years. I found people who made fun of my quirks, but still loved me and supported me. As soon as I bothered to be who I was, I found it easy to invite people in my life who liked that person.

I can still be a little guarded, a little insecure. I’ve learned the hard way to choose my friends wisely. I don’t open up easily. I have thousands of acquaintances, and a select group of friends. Some people still don’t like me because I’m “too much”, or flamboyant, or downright odd. They don’t think my stories about dating equally odd, “high-profile” people or anecdotes about the silly situations I got myself into before I was older and wiser are entertaining, and I don’t blame them. You can’t please everyone, and “being myself” does often mean being weird, unconventional, flamboyant, and saying things that cause others to turn bright red. I get how some people, especially in the South, especially those who aren’t particularly secure in themselves, don’t like that. I get how my snarkiness annoys others in the same way overly perky, upper-induced people make me want to go home and listen to Nirvana. (I think one of my favourite people, Dorothy Parker, would highly approve.) Some people just don’t like me when I’m “being myself”. And, yet, some people are devoted admirers because of those things.

Being sick over the past year really put things into perspective for me, made me seek out different kinds of friendships, forced me to become more introspective, gave me the opportunity to see things in other people I’d previously missed. I’ve become not only more self-aware, but generally more intuitive and perceptive as a result of needing to take time out from the world. I’ve become a huge fan of one-on-one interactions with others, and realised just how much I hate “clubbing”, and maybe, I secretly always did. I’ve learned that most of my insecurities over the years weren’t real (if you think you’re fat at a size 6, there’s nothing like gaining 30 pounds and five years to make you re-evaluate that girl you judged so harshly.) I’ve learned that most of what was off-putting to people wasn’t that I dared to be my unconventional self, but because there were so many times when I didn’t. I was a social hypocrite, like so much of the world, living one way behind closed doors, yet putting on another face for social occasions. I didn’t let anyone in, didn’t let people get too close. Most of my relationships had an element of superficiality to them I wouldn’t tolerate now.

Yes, as it turns out, I am kind of old. Because I can’t go back to being that faux-perfect-looking, alpha-female, “slightly too good for you” 21-year-old girl, mostly because I know I’m not going to grow up to be that same, even more successful, more socially appropriate 31-year-old-woman. I’m going to realise that’s not me, it never was, and if that means I’m not as appreciated as I should be as a consequence, it’s more likely because I’m in the wrong setting than anything about me is flawed.

Out of all of life’s lessons, “be yourself” is the hardest to learn, mostly because we’re conditioned at such an early age to learn there are social repercussions if yourself happens to be kind of not like everyone else.

Here’s the memo: Everyone else isn’t like everyone else, either. They’re just more people who are scared to be themselves, and believe there’s safety in numbers.

Conformity and blending in isn’t happiness. It’s just one more way in which you’re doing the world, and yourself, a disservice. I have a magnet on my refrigerator, with a quote reading “Stop spending your time trying to be regular. It robs you of the chance to be extraordinary.”

I got fired from my “regular” job yesterday, a primary source of income and responsibility in my life for well over two years. I’m still processing, and not ready to write about it, or deal with the sudden lack of security and constancy this represents in my world. Strangely, it feels like a loss, yet a loss that has freedom as a side effect. I slept 12 hours in a row last night, peacefully, when I should be worried as hell about my future.

Instead, I wonder if someone taking away the safety of being regular is what it takes to remind me that I’m extraordinary, and should be focusing my energy on doing extraordinary things…or at least living a life that makes me happy, instead of settling for one that resembles “secure adulthood”.

“Being sick allows you to check out of life. Getting well again means you have to check back in. It is absolutely crucial that you are ready to check back into life because you feel as though something has changed from the time before you were sick. Whatever it was that made you feel insecure, less than, or pressured in a way that was uncomfortable to you. You have to create a whole new life to check into.” — Portia Di Rossi, “Unbearable Lightness”

It has been a year since I first got sick, or almost, and the thought of braving the summer is somewhat terrifying to me. The heat, the sun, the TV shows that I watched throughout my illness—they all remind me of a time in my life when I was constantly afraid. I was afraid I was going to die. More than that, I was afraid I was going to die, alone and unloved and crazy and misunderstood and without ever doing anything positive with my life. I was afraid I would never be normal again, and because of it, nobody would ever love me, understand me, want to be my friend, find me attractive. In some ways, I felt like my life was over at an age that, by many standards, people consider the epitome of being young enough to be vibrant and enthusiastic about life, but wise enough to avoid the stupid mistakes you engaged in a decade earlier. I reached the age where it was time to be an adult, and all of the sudden, the world came tumbling down around me.

I am, of course, still not entirely well. I have a chronic condition that will be with me for the rest of my life, requiring medication and more rest than I’d prefer to need and more unwanted reactions to life than I’d prefer to have. I still have the occasional migraine with aura that may only last 15 minutes, but gives me such a sense of being out of control, that I am convinced I am going to die. I still have anxiety in places that are too bright, too loud, have too many people. I still can’t fly. I have a few really close friends in NYC that I’d love to visit and spend time with, but instinctively, I know that one of my favourite cities on Earth is too much for me, and that makes me a little sad. I still can’t seem to ditch the unwanted 20 pounds I gained when they put me on medication, something that makes me very sad. I can’t be as free-spirited and unconcerned with things as I used to be, because now there are consequences. If I forget to take my pill at the right time of day, drink too early in the day, push myself too hard or sit in the heat too long, there are consequences that are very unpleasant. If I don’t eat enough, or eat too many of the wrong things, or deny myself caffeine for days on end, my body rebels. It’s strange to suddenly be governed by rules and limitations.

My doctors have told me that over a period of 2-3 years, my condition will steadily improve. Symptoms will interfere with my life less and less, until they’re barely noticeable. Some people have issues with large, brightly-lit spaces for a lifetime; others can’t stand loud environments; still others can’t handle elevators or escalators.

Being me, and a pessimistic realist, I didn’t believe my doctors, who had been wrong so many times before in attempting to treat my illness. I am still young enough that 3 years seems like a lifetime. I imagine that, by then, I might be an entirely different person with an entirely different life, as it’s happened so many times before. It is hard for me to see three years down the road. It is hard for me to even imagine that I will be alive and well in three years. Some days, I doubt it. I have always had trouble imagining myself as a person with a future. Since my teenage years, I was convinced that I was going to die when I was 30. It seems coincidental, and yet almost too meaningful to be coincidental, that once I passed that mark, I developed a frightening illness that reminded me I wanted to live and didn’t really know how.

A year ago, I would not have believed that I could spend the day at a friend’s pool party without hiding from the sun the entire time, go to a rock concert, or travel to multiple cities on my own, places I’d never been before, to visit with friends. I would not have believed that I could handle a world full of buses, crowded stations, elevators, trains, and taxis on my own, along with almost 30 pounds of luggage added to my body weight.

I would not have imagined that in the year that’s elapsed since first getting sick, I’d have developed friendships that are among the most meaningful I’ve allowed into my life in years, simply because I took the time to talk one-on-one and invest myself in the kind of people who may never have caught my attention in a more vibrant, constantly moving social setting. I would not have imagined that not having something to do, somewhere to go, and someone to entertain almost every day would not only be acceptable to me, but would help me find a sense of peace and acceptance regarding myself.

Slowly, I’ve been checking back into life again, and the time I spent largely checked out of my old existence helped me to formulate a new one. One of the most shocking things I’m discovering about myself is that I’m not a co-dependent person. I’ve always thought I was, always been attracted to the guys who would constantly pay attention to me, take care of everything in my life, fix all my problems…and then suddenly run when it came time to make a commitment, or find myself looking for a different type of relationship. I like people, I like attention, I like being loved and cared for, but I have a self-sufficient streak that runs through my personality. I am happiest when I am allowed to engage it, when I can explore the world on my own terms from time to time. It is important to me to have friends and relationships in my life, to feel I am loved, to express affection…but my freedom and independence is just as important to me. Perhaps this means I won’t ever get married,or have kids, or my relationships will be of the non-traditional variety, or I’ll end up with a job that makes me a wandering nomad from time to time, but that’s OK. I find myself judged quite frequently for that aspect of myself, and the pressure to hide that desire for freedom, coupled with my natural distrust of other human beings until proven otherwise, has led me to seek out very clingy friendships and relationships. Yet, that very same kind of clinginess causes me stress and makes me unhappy.

Let’s be honest here, I lived with a roommate I didn’t really like or bond with for a very long time because I thought I couldn’t manage on my own, and cried and felt undue stress at the idea of being left to cope with living in a space by myself. This person was utterly toxic in my life, yet keeping that person around was less frightening than being alone. This is not the first time I’ve been through this scenario, and every time, once I deal with the shock of being left alone, I realise just how much happier I am. I’ve lived with ex-boyfriends and moved in with people I should not have because I felt like being on my own just wasn’t for me, and every time, I was shocked by the realisation that I felt freer and lighter when the person I supposedly loved and needed was gone. I didn’t want the person to be gone forever, I just wanted my own space for awhile. I never really knew that about myself. I like living in a world where there is a certain amount of personal space and freedom, and that’s balanced out by friendships and relationships that are truly important to me, not just having people around to have them around. I’m still an extrovert who gets bummed out if I don’t have enough social interaction in my world. Yet, I grew up valuing my personal space immensely, being able to hide out in my own room and “escape” from everything and everyone else. I thought that, like most people, I simply grew out of that, but I don’t think I ever did. I just told myself I *should*, because people have roommates, families, live together…especially in cities, people aren’t designed for personal space. But I like mine.

I’ve also come to accept a basic truth about me: I don’t like people. At least, I don’t like all of them, and during my time of illness, I came to see the idea of meeting and entertaining strangers as a drain on my very limited resources. It became harder to smile and appear charming in the face of people you don’t care for, or pretend to be interested in conversation that just *isn’t*. I don’t think it’s an accident that I’ve developed at least three strong friendships during the time I was ill, largely because it was the first time in my life I cared about meaningful one-on-one interaction with someone I suspect I might relate to, instead of “How many people can I get to come to my party?”. I’ve hosted a Meetup group for 5 years, and literally met thousands of people. Perhaps 20-30 of them have become friends; some of them have become my best friends in the world.

But, when I was sitting on the lawn talking about my childhood with my friend in Durham, or at a quirky coffee shop creating imaginary art in my head with a friend in Charlotte, or at a small dinner with 6 or so of my close friends in Atlanta, I realised how much happier and more content I was than at any of the bars or clubs or parties I’d been to recently. The difference was, I was really able to communicate and bond with people I truly care about, people who accept me and allow me to be myself. I didn’t have to flirt or accept and give insincere compliments, hug strangers, make small talk about “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?”.

I was telling a friend recently that I’d never been like that before. In fact, I’d had people end relationships and friendships with me over what was perceived by others as a disinterestedness in truly getting to know someone, and what I saw as “Whenever we turn everything into a group outing, more people means more fun!”. In some ways, my illness was stronger than my desire to be the centre of attention, to be the person that everyone looked at in a large group of people. I didn’t want to be looked at anymore, I didn’t want to have to meet expectations or offer meaningless social frivolities. I just wanted to be around people who understood, and really cared. My illness allowed me to see what life is like for people more introverted, more focused, less willing to engage in pretense and the attempt to “be seen and appreciated” than I have always been. At first, I was bored and depressed and hated it. I just wanted my old life back. As I started to get better, I started to see it’s one of the greatest gifts life could have given me. I value others so much more now, and learned it’s OK not to like everyone, and not to give a crap if other people don’t like you. I was reminded how authenticity was one of the most important aspects of my personality, and how often I’ve had to sacrifice that to please others or to be liked. I feel like it is a permanent change, that I no longer have the energy or the desire to do that. I don’t go to bars or clubs on Saturday nights anymore; I play trivia with my friends at a pizza place that doesn’t serve alcohol and closes at 11, so we sit on the bench in front of the building, talking and looking at stupid YouTube videos. And, strangely, I love it. When I am out of town, it is the thing I miss the most. It used to be something to do when there wasn’t a party to go to or an event to plan. Now, it’s something I look forward to doing.

I have changed and grown in many ways as a result of one of the most difficult periods of my life. I learned to let the self-destructive, attention-seeking side of myself go when it occurred to me that I wasn’t ready to die. I learned to appreciate people by admitting how much about my life I didn’t really enjoy, how much of my interactions with others felt forced and artificial. I’ve learned to balance the conviction that you have to appreciate today because there is no future with the idea that, in case I’m still around, I might want to make plans for my life 6 months from now. I’ve learned that living alone doesn’t mean being alone, and it’s far preferable to the stress of being around someone you don’t even like that much, and the negative energy they bring into your life. I’ve learned that substance counts, and I have a great deal of it, even though I spend a lot of time downplaying that aspect of myself. I’ve learned that feeling loved sometimes means someone understanding you enough to give you the freedom you need, and that showing you care about others means understanding the freedom that person needs. I’ve learned that it’s OK to say “No”, even if it makes you feel badly, because attempting to please others at the expense of your own happiness isn’t worth having panic attacks over. I’ve learned that while I don’t have all the answers to life, sometimes my intuition tells me everything I need to know about the world around me and the people in it. I’ve learned that I value my family for who they are, but it’s the friends who are like family that truly make me feel at home…and it sucks that those friends live in five or six different states, but it doesn’t matter much.

I’ve learned I’m stronger than I think I am. And, maybe, three years from now, I’m going to wonder what all the fuss and panic was about when I see a Wal-Mart, Target, or Kroger. I’m going to make changes between now and then, and I don’t even know what they are or why I’ll make them or if they’ll be the best choices…but I know I’m going to be around to make them. That means I’ve come so much farther from where I was this time a year ago, and although I feel frightened about the approaching summer, potentially going to Dragon*Con, or traveling, or just locking myself up in my room and focusing on work and making money, I somehow intuitively know I’m going to be OK. It used to be one day at a time in my world, and now it’s one week at a time. That is progress.

Sometimes, in life, it can be difficult to get a word in edgewise.

If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’ve spoken about difficulties with individuals who find me too loud, too extroverted, too overbearing, or simply too much, in one way or another. As a result, I’ve tried to work on becoming a better listener and a more patient person, although neither come naturally to me, as a highly reactive person.

And, yet, it seems I can’t please anyone with my style of communication. Either people are tired of hearing from me, or I feel frustrated that I am not being heard, that I am not important enough to validate or to consider I might have a worthwhile opinion, story, or even an answer to a question.

Recently, The Guy I Am Currently Dating has repeatedly mentioned (at least twice in the past two weeks)that I “tell X,Y,Z to every person I know”, making me feel highly invalidated, as if he’s become so bored with me that he can’t stand to hear me go on about the same things for another day. Finally, I asked him if he’s so bored with my stories, why is he still bothering to converse with me? He apologised, but it still ended up making me feel extremely self-conscious, as if I truly don’t have anything witty or interesting to contribute to the world, other than repeating the same stories to new audiences.

Then, last night at trivia, The Guy I Am Currently Dating and I were playing with the same friends we always play trivia with, a married couple relatively close to my age with whom we get along well. Except, yesterday, while we were all debating a question, I wasn’t even allowed to express my opinion. It wasn’t an opinion, even, but more a point that I was confused on what my teammate was saying. I wasn’t the only one. Others were confused, too. But this friend didn’t want to hear my feedback, so he put up his hand and simply told me to “Shhh.’ (incidentally, none of us knew to correct answer.) I was very hurt and angry with this person for the rest of trivia.

It didn’t help that after trivia, sitting and talking to a group of guys that play on teams we compete against, I felt frustrated because I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Every time I tried to contribute to the conversation, ask a question, or share a related anecdote, someone else would talk, as if I weren’t even there. I finally just got my stuff and started to head out, because, really, what’s the point of conversation with people who don’t find you interesting enough to listen?

Today, we went to a Meetup that The Guy I Am Currently Dating organizes, which is for fans of a sci-fi show. I don’t particularly care for sci-fi, and I’ve not always found it the easiest to make friends in this group. In fact, in the past, I actually made enemies. (I didn’t do anything but show up, so I don’t really know how that happened.) However, slowly but surely, I’ve been working on trying to get to know people, although virtually everyone seems to be rather opposite of me in personality and on the level of interests/hobbies. At least I no longer sit there in silence for 3 hours once a month, as I did the first year of coming to the group.

But when I was talking, I guy I barely know replied to something I said with, “Wow, that’s really self-centered. I know you admit to being a narcissist and you like being the centre of attention, but that’s pretty self-centered.”

It took all the willpower in the world not to just get up and leave. If I’d have attended that event alone, I probably would have. I’ve known this guy from this group throughout the 3 years I’ve been attending, and we’ve had maybe 5 conversations. None of them have allowed him to get to know me on any meaningful level, much less make judgements of my character or psychological makeup. This was especially offensive to me because what I was saying wasn’t self-centred at all, it had to do with me expressing an insecurity (specifically, I shared that when I was out with someone and they specifically asked me not to “check them in” on the FB app that does so, it made me feel as if they were ashamed to let the world know they were hanging out with me. Why? Because I’ve encountered people who have treated me that way.). So, it was actually a moment of human vulnerability and an attempt to connect as a real, honest human being—but of course, nobody could see beyond “That seems self-centred because that’s how Alayna is, based upon the absolutely NOTHING I know about her.”

No matter what I do, it seems I can’t win. It seems “being myself” is not only wrong most of the time, but I’m hard pressed to find people who find anything positive in the feelings I express, what I have to say, or the personality that I am. Even the douchebag at the club dismissed me as “bizarre” and “stuck in my own head” because he wasn’t interested or intelligent enough to engage in witty repartee when I offered it.

It seems like either people are forever judging me, telling me to shut up, pointing out how I have nothing to offer of substance, or simply not listening…so the question is, why do I even try? Why do I have an internal need to express myself to a world that simply doesn’t care a great majority of the time? Even many of my close friends admit to not reading this blog because “it’s too long” or “too intense”.

Why is it so hard to find someone on my wavelength, someone who actually enjoys my conversation, and recognises that I’m a smart, authentic, vulnerable person? If you take the time to not judge a book by its cover, you’d find out I’m more than entertaining, snarky, and narcissistic. And, yes, if you hang out with me long enough, you’re going to hear some of the same stories repeated, which is a hazard of hanging out with the kind of person who meets 500 new people a year. It doesn’t mean I tell everything about me to everyone I meet. In fact, there’s plenty I tell no one, not even those who spend three years hanging out with me.

The more people I meet, the more I realise that I don’t really relate to most of them, and most of them in turn judge me fairly incorrectly. It’s not a new problem. I’ve suffered from being chronically misunderstood my whole life. I remember sitting on the couch with an ex, who was then not an ex, shortly after moving to Atlanta, and I made a witty comment. He laughed and looked surprised. When I asked what was up, he said, “You surprised me, because I never knew you were witty.”

We’d been together at least 9 months.

I, of course, smiled and said nothing, but in my head, I thought, “How can this person possibly be my soulmate?”

There was an easy answer to that, of course, although it isn’t the one I wanted to hear.

Likewise, I often wonder how I can spend time routinely with so many “friends” and acquaintances that just don’t get me, aren’t interested in getting me, or are so convinced that the one side of me they see is all there is that they’re not interested in getting to know the others.

Because I am interesting. I am smart. I am witty. I do have interesting stories, and since I’ve met thousands of people in my lifetime, I will repeat them numerous times for the benefit of strangers and friends who know me, but not as well as they could. And it may make me narcissistic to say I’m worth shutting up and listening to now and again, and if you stopped judging and started listening, you might find a real person rather than an entertaining personality.

But, I guess that’s just me. After all, I’m pretty self-centred.