How Can I Go Back to Being Myself When There's No One There?

By Jessie Monreal 03/16/18

Identity and self-worth don’t just magically appear when you get sober, or when you finally leave the asshole in the dust, or when you quit the soul-sucking job.

A figure's face and hand pressing out against white fabric
Photo by Steinar Engeland on Unsplash

On the other side of addiction, or a long, shitty toxic relationship, or an exceptionally consuming and draining job, one of the things we commonly hear people say is “I finally got myself back,” or “I finally feel like the old me again,” or another expression of the same sentiment. It’s almost inevitable that when lost in one of these situations you become so consumed by it that the person you once were ceases to exist. That person is simply bowled over and absorbed by the relentless demands of the drugs, the alcohol, the selfish, controlling or abusive mate, the meetings and never-ending tasks of the job. The addiction doesn’t care that you used to love to draw or write. The toxic relationship pays no mind to the network of friends and loved ones you once made time for. The once-coveted career has no interest in the fact that it has destroyed your marriage. These things will suck your soul right out of you like a vacuum and leave your shell on the ground, trying to make sense of what happened. Trying to pinpoint the exact moment where you lost the person you once were.

That did not happen to me. I did not get back to my old self. I was not met with the relief of slipping back into my familiar and comfortable personality.

Like many people who grew up in a chaotic, alcoholic home, I have never known who I was. As children, we are ripped from childhood and plopped squarely into the role of caretaker: tiny adult extraordinaire. We are chastised and scolded according to our chronological age, but then expected to behave as grownups. We have the mind and maturity level and egocentric view of a child, but the responsibilities of the whole household. It’s confusing. There is no normal or feasible way to develop a sense of self when you are constantly being pulled back and forth. One moment you are made to feel important and powerful, and the next you don’t exist. There are so many different sets of circumstances that lead to the same end results: a child or teen with a fractured sense of self; a massive lack of self-worth; an inability to identify as anything except what they perceive others perceive them to be.

I started numbing these after effects during my teen years. When you are shoving drugs and alcohol into your body during your formative years, you don’t develop an identity or get in touch with who you are. If anything, you are pushed farther and farther away from it. I required constant approval from others. If I didn’t feel accepted, I was sad and lonely at best, and suicidal at worst. There was no “Jessie.” There was a mirror of what she felt others wanted from her. There was a constant and overwhelming insecurity that drove every thought, behavior, and decision, from what to eat for breakfast to how to act in front of who. There is not one single time in my life, from childhood until well after I got sober, that I remember feeling comfortable in my own skin. Never. I had no identity of my own and I was terrified that this was just further evidence that I was just….nothing.

This is something that happens so often. This is why people such as myself, who have spent their life always feeling on the fringes, different, not accepted--the ones with the void--are the ones who become so susceptible to addiction, alcoholism, abusive relationships, overworking, people pleasing to the point of complete exhaustion. All of these things give us some sort of relief, whether it is the numbness, or the escape, or the twisted validation, or the need to rescue or be rescued. That void is big, it is hungry, and it hurts. If you have experienced it, you know that you will try just about anything to fill it, and when you find something that works, you don’t care about the consequences. You just run with it.

And now, here, if you take away those things, we are lost. I see it every day at work, treating people with addiction. These are people who have been using since the moment they realized there was a quick fix for that miserable, unrelenting feeling of unease that’s been weighing them down as long as they can remember; people who are stuck down so deep in the fuckery of a toxic relationship that they have no idea it is further destroying their already fragile psyche; people who can’t for the life of them understand how a job could literally destroy them. Those of us who came from these homes and then--as barely still children ourselves--began to drink and use, we never had a “myself” to get back to. And this makes it exponentially harder to come back from the ledge. When you take away everything you have used to identify yourself for so long, even if those things were killing you, then who the fuck ARE you? If you don’t work on figuring that out, on redesigning and uncovering, the cold hard reality is that you will slip right back into what you have always known. And this is how we remain frozen in self-destruction.

I walked away from drugs and alcohol. I left them behind. But I was not met with relief right away. I was met with total confusion. Discomfort. Crippling fear. So I found other ways to run and hide like I always had. I found other ways to validate myself as a person instead of looking within. I ran full speed into the arms of men who were the antithesis of what I should be looking for. I beat myself up for being single and believed it was just further proof that I was not as good as the rest; that I was, and always will be, less than. I let someone treat me in ways that were so incomprehensibly unacceptable and I ran back to it over and over.

I did these things because of the lack of an identity, the complete and utter absence of self-worth. Identity and self-worth don’t just magically appear when you get sober, or when you finally leave the asshole in the dust, or when you quit the soul-sucking job. Especially if you never had them to begin with.

As hard as it is to realize that you are a grown-ass person with no idea who you are, there is beauty in it. There is nothing like finding out how happy it makes you to actually remember a concert you went to. Or to look into the eyes of someone who knows the pain you have known and form a real bond. There is nothing like finally being able to be alone, to sit with yourself, and not have it make you want to rip your hair out and crawl out of your skin.

You get to break free of the chains of lies you told yourself, and with the realization that each lie is not who you are, you drop it and that weight gets lighter:

*You are not a bad parent. * You are not less important than others. *You are not a defective human being. *Your happiness and peace do not come last after everyone else’s. *You do not deserve to be treated like a plaything for the amusement of someone who has his or her own issues. *You do not have to make everyone, or anyone, happy but you. *You are not responsible for or the cause of the behavior of others. *You are not a hopeless case.

It takes an enormous amount of courage to get sober. It takes an enormous amount of courage to leave a toxic relationship. It takes an enormous amount of courage to make a big life change. But that is not always the tough part. What is really truly tough to come by is the strength and determination to stick with it. Not to relapse when the pain starts. Not to run back to the bullshit because you’re scared of being alone. Not to give up on your dreams because they seem too far away.

There aren’t too many things as terrifying as rebuilding yourself from the ground up. Especially when the materials are not sound. But when you do…Man, there’s nothing as unstoppable as someone who knows that they can survive.

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Jessie Monreal currently works at a treatment facility as a clinical case manager. She holds a degree in addiction studies as well as a CADC. She has experience and education in both the mental health and substance abuse field. Jessie has been in recovery for over four years, and is passionate about reaching out to others who may be struggling, as well as educating the public and breaking stigmas. She currently writes a blog on these topics at You can also learn more about her at