My parents split up when I was 11. Mom told him that if he didn’t stop drinking, then he needed to leave. He made it three days before he started packing up his shit in his truck while my sister and I sat in the living room watching tv. We could hear Mom and Dad arguing, so I turned up the volume on the tv so my sister Amanda couldn’t hear. She hugged her crocheted bunny and cried.
“That’s just who I am,” Dad said.
“That’s your mother talking,” Mom sniped.
I heard them argue back and forth for a few minutes while Dad continued packing his shit into laundry baskets and carrying it out to his red Mitsubishi pickup. Every time he came back in, they’d start up again, Dad muttering something about how Mom was trying to change him, and Mom saying that drinking wasn’t who he was. When he clung to his original assertion, that yes, he was in fact, a miserable drunk through and through, I could hear Mom saying, “Fine. Then, if you love these girls, you’ll leave. And you won’t come back.”
Dad finished packing up his truck. He hugged my sister and I and told us that he loved us, but that Mom and Dad just couldn’t stay married anymore. He took the last of his belongings with him as I watched him through the glass sliding door. He got in his truck, never looking back at me, and I watched him as he drove away, the sounds of his missing muffler disappearing among the rush hour traffic of Warwick Avenue.
Here’s the thing: That’s not who Dad was. My mother knew it. I knew it. My sister knew it. Even then, as just two kids, we knew it. We knew what kind of person Dad was. We knew what kind of person he was capable of being if he could just lay off the alcohol. We knew that he was sad and broken, and somewhere along the way, Dad let that define him. Not one of us believed that that was who he was.
But Dad did. And because he did, he wasn’t going to get sober. He wasn’t going to model for us the proper way that a husband should treat his wife or how a man should treat his kids. I mean, I loved my dad and he loved us, but he could be a real piece of work sometimes. That’s why Mom had to let him go. And eventually, when things got worse and Dad deteriorated even more, my sister and I had to let him go too.
You are who you decide to be.
I thought about this today while I was in the throes of yet another inner shit talker negativity spiral. I was struggling with a little writer’s block, and immediately, my inner shit talker seized the opportunity to tell me what a piece of garbage I am.
You’re pathetic. You’re already tapped out of ideas. This is just gonna be another thing you give up on. This is going to be something else you’ve failed at.
I know. My inner shit talker is a real twat waffle. And she knows just how to hit me where it hurts.
That’s just who you are.
When I heard this last part, I could almost hear the wheels in my head screech to a grinding halt. Those words echo when I hear them, even if they’re in my head. Each syllable morphs into a deep, thick, manly Rhode Island accent, which sounds just like my father’s voice. Whenever I hear that sentence, I remember Dad. I remember how wrong he was, but how he’d tricked himself into believing it anyway. You’re only who you believe yourself to be, and for him, he ended up exactly where he said he would. And it didn’t have to be that way.
As my inner shit talking voice turned into Dad’s voice in my head, playing “This is just who I am,” on a relentless, heartbreaking loop, I snapped out of my funk. I’ve gotten really good at sniffing out my inner shit talker. I’m hip to her jive, and I know how to shut that bitch down before she spins out of control. I know that whenever Dad pops into my head, I should listen, because he’s probably trying to teach me something. And knowing him, it’s usually a way to learn from his mistakes.
I thought about those words, and all the times I’ve used them. It is almost always reserved exclusively for really low points in my life. When I ballooned up to 240 lbs., I remember coming home from a short trip downtown. My legs and back were killing me. My ankles were swollen from a short walk around Forsyth Park. I cried on my back patio, short of breath and frustrated. I puffed on my cigarette, sobbing about how a classmate had asked me a few days before if I was just pregnant or fat. “I’m stuck like this,” I cried
“This is just who I am now,” I said as I cracked open what would be the first of many Michelob Ultras and drowned my sorrows. A drunken food binge probably followed. I probably woke up the next day to get a greasy breakfast to cure my hangover. And the vicious cycle started all over again.
Something similar happened back in 2016. I’d hit a wall professionally. I’d quit my day job the year before to make a go of things on my own, and things had not panned out the way I thought they would. I pitched a fit in the middle of my kitchen as I’d just gotten rejected from yet another job. The tip of the iceberg was when I went to fix my dogs’ dinner and I dropped the food bowls all over my kitchen.
“I’m a fucking joke,” I cried.
“I’m stuck like this. This is who I am now.”
Both of those times, I stayed where I was for a while. I stayed unhealthy and overweight and drunk because I believed that that was who I was and that was all I was capable of. I stayed professionally and personally aimless because that’s where I was and I chose to stay there. If you attract what you put out, I was putting out that I was garbage and incapable of change or success or happiness, and I got back garbage that was more of the same and I stayed miserable for a while. That may not have been who I was, but I believed that’s who I was. That’s who I became.
Eventually, I figured out that I could just get off my ass and exercise. Little by little, I wasn’t crying or getting winded every time I went for a walk. My ankles didn’t swell at the first sign of physical activity. I quit smoking because I was tired of being a twenty something who was chronically out of breath and had a permanent, nasty cough. I realized that my success was directly related to every decision I had made up until that point, and I took responsibility for where I was and realized I could decide where I was headed.
It required change and work, but if you want to move forward, then you’ve got to stop standing still.
At some point, I realized that I was more, and I deserved better. Once I entertained that idea, I ran with it. I had to fake it a little at first, but the more I practiced this whole, “I’m actually not garbage,” crap, the more I believed it. The more I believed it, the better my life got.
I remember this one day in the middle of the bookstore where I was at one of these low points. Chris sat in the cafe with me as I piled self help books into my basket.
“I can’t believe I’ve turned out to be such a failure,” I said.
“You haven’t turned out to be anything. You’re just in a rut. I wish you could see yourself the way I see you,” he said.
As nice as that was to hear, it didn’t make a bit of difference. It didn’t hurt, but it didn’t matter that he didn’t believe that was who I was; I believed it. And only I and I alone could change the story. It wasn’t until I believed I was worthy and that I believed that I could create a life that was different, that was better, that my life started to take shape the way I wanted it to.
Whether we like it or not, we are responsible for where we are. I get that shit happens that is beyond our control, but even what we do with it and how we react to it are up to us. This has been a tough pill to swallow, especially for someone like me who is easily irritated and has a temper. Seriously, do you know how hard it is to accept that it wasn’t someone or something else that made you mad, but YOU that made you mad?
Still trying to wrap my mind around that one. But I’m trying, so that’s all that matters.
You know that saying “When someone shows you who they are, believe them?” Well, I’d like to alter it to read, “When someone shows you who they believe they are, believe them.” Because we are not etched in stone. We are forever growing and changing and evolving, or at least, we are capable of it. But it starts and ends with US.
There are times when I think about Dad and how sad he was. I think about how much he believed he was nothing. I know how much he hated himself. I know that’s a lot of why he drank. And he really believed that the life he had was the one he deserved, the only one he was capable of living. Sometimes, I wish I could go back in time and just hug him, and tell him how wonderful he was and how he deserved so much better, but I know it wouldn’t have made a difference. He was what he chose to be. He used to say shit like, “I ain’t gonna make it to 45 at the rate I’m going.” He started saying that in his twenties. And he died at 44. We could’ve told him he was wrong until we were blue in the face. Dad was who he chose to be, and he was the only one who could’ve chosen differently.
Do you see? When you short yourself, when you resign yourself to settling for less, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Universe will only give you what you ask for. If you tell it you deserve crap, you’ll get crap.
I’m not saying to question someone every time they act like an asshole and then tell you, “That’s just who I am.” That’s who they choose to be, and you’ll need to evaluate whether or not they’re worth keeping around. After all, the only person that you have control over is YOU. But if you’re acting like a dickhead, and you say, “That’s just who I am,” know that it is who you are choosing to be, and you can choose to change it or at least try to change it. So, if you want to be a douche nugget, that is your choice, but know that the people who are subject to your douchebaggery reserve the right to cut you loose at any time for the sake of their vibe and sanity.
Case in Point: I’m a little prone to making things about me sometimes. I’m actively working on this, because it’s not cute, and I despise it in other people. So, I should probably get a hold on that garbage. But, there was a time many years ago where I thought it was one of my endearing qualities, just another quirk about me. So, when someone accused me of making something all about me, I quickly retorted with, “That’s just who I am.” And then I got all shocked and indignant when my friends began ghosting me one by one. They were probably just really smart, not wanting to be around a self-centered ass bag, but in my mind, they were bad friends for not accepting me, warts and all.
That’s not how it works. Life is short and no one should have to put up with an unapologetic asshole. That’s not what people mean when they say, “Be Yourself,” and you know it.
I’m not saying you should be perfect. I’m not saying that I still don’t occasionally make it all about me or fly off the handle and blame someone else for my mood. What I’m saying is that I’m not resigned to the idea that it’s who I am. Drinking wasn’t who I was. Overweight and miserable wasn’t who I was. If I had to pick one thing to say about myself, it’s that I am a person who does her best. Am I always great at it? Well, some days are better than others. I am who I choose to be, and so are you. Resigning yourself to mediocrity or settling for less than you deserve is not a great way to make life your bitch.
Look, all I want you to realize is that you’re not etched in stone. I’m not. My Dad wasn’t, whether he realized it or not, but his story has ended. Your story continues. You can rewrite the middle or the ending any time you want. Be yourself…unless you’re an asshole, then you know, try to be yourself, only better.
And yes, sometimes who we choose to be takes work. Hell, most of the time it does. I can’t think of one worthwhile thing that doesn’t require at least a little effort on your part. Seriously, if you want a different life, you need to do something different. If you want to be healthier or less insane, it’s gonna require a little work from you. If you’re not willing to do the work to be the person you want to be, that’s on you. You’re basically putting it out a message into The Universe that says, “Meh, good stuff is too much work. Crap’s fine. I’ll just take some more crap. Crap’s easier.”
UNIVERSE: One steaming pile of shit, coming right up!
You’ve got a choice. You can choose to be shaped and defined by your circumstances, or you can realize that you are in charge and you alone can change course. Choose to be the best version of yourself. Choose to always strive for better.
Who will you choose to be?