Finding My Authentic Self

By Audrey Fox 12/02/15

Reclaiming integrity through sobriety.

Oh My Identity

In recovery, we speak often of “authentic self”—an unearthing, a return, or an introduction to a person we never knew we were, or of whom we had only glimpsed hints in passing moments of clarity. Many of us have those mirror moments, either in active addiction or throughout sobriety—moments of realization that we are better than our worst actions, are deserving of a life anchored by healthy behavior, are worthy of love we have not shown ourselves. Perhaps our reflective dawnings have inspired an about-turn, an admission, or a coming clean.

I moved to New York in 2007 with a very rudimentary idea of what life in the city would be like, informed largely by an embarrassing affinity for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and the two episodes of Gossip Girl I’d seen my junior year of high school. I presumed that any indication of my actual background and upbringing—in largely rural areas with small-town folk, on military bases, in churches, with a penchant for mountain biking—would prove an immediate indictment of my worthiness to live here. And so I set about the distancing I naively deemed requisite for success, affecting a cultured air so inconsistent that it now recalls a feeling similar to the dinner scene in Pretty Woman. I didn’t know which fork to use but dammit, I was determined, and that determination was so fortified by the glass in my hand and its accompanying harder “garnishes” that I avowed never to put them down. 

I clumsily adjusted to the pace and posturing of Manhattan and its outer boroughs, shifting my story to fit where I fell, drinking daily and never allowing my conflicting stories to collide. I was growing progressively more depressed, but was not used to asking for help or letting on that I was anything less than perfect. I coasted through on self-assurance that if no one could readily observe a problem in me, that that should suffice as permission to continue what I was doing. I caught some hints that maybe things weren’t going all too well, but wrote them off with flippancy and turned pain and fear into witty anecdotes shared over yet another drink. 

In February 2008, however—a month before I got sober—I had a mirror moment all too terrifying to ignore—or at least, to ignore for long. It was not an especially exceptional circumstance in and of itself which informed its significance—I imagine, rather, it was more a conspiration of divinely timed clarity and some modicum of readiness to change, of which I’d of then been largely unaware. The particulars are not especially dazzling or dramatic, and yet somehow the reflection of my gaunt face—sallow and saddened, set with dark-ringed eyes divorced of any indication of former joy—was finally seen for what it represented rather than how it appeared. Shaken and disquieted I immediately resumed drinking, as I was equally certain that I did not want what I had as I was too beyond repair for there to be any other viable alternative.

One month later, I got sober. It was messy and ramshackle and I did everything wrong except for maintaining physical abstinence. I went to meetings for all of the wrong reasons, but I went. I got a sponsor for all of the wrong reasons, but I got one. And so established, I set about seeking backing in the rooms with a vengeance and tenacity befitting one very lost and lonely 18-year-old. Granted I misconstrued the safety afforded in Alcoholics Anonymous through its encouragement of admission for a sense of pseudo-parental validation or peer permission to be myself, despite having a very limited idea of who that was. 

The baseline of what I knew for certain at that time was that I was attracted to women, vodka and black clothing. My appearance now seems sadly telling to me, overcompensation insistent upon communicating the amount of feelings I had in direct proportion to the thickness of my eyeliner. I had bleach blonde hair to the middle of my back, and could often be observed chain-smoking Parliaments and furiously fake-texting on my Motorola Razr (those were cool then, ok guys?) in a variety of locations throughout the city. I was every inch the seeker—of validation, love, acceptance—and dangerously susceptible to the opinions of strangers, if it meant making some sense of myself.

I leaned heavily on the feedback of those around me, trying on different hats to see what fit with me and was well- or poorly-received by others. This coupled with a deep sensitivity to criticism as well as a more-impressionable-than-I’d-care-to-admit nature resulted in some shape-shifting to accommodate the preferences of those around me, and a vehement othering of characteristics which seemed to be met with disapproval. If I told an acerbic joke met with raucous laughter, I would note the need for ongoing development of cutting material. If I received a compliment on my ensemble—at the time still being in my spandex and leather phase—I would take it as solid indication that I should definitely continue maintaining Whitesnake video extra appearances for at least another month.

I sloppily adopted and shed personality traits and affected personas to see what fit, often finding pieces that settled well with me and stuck, but never in an altogether pre-made package. While at the time I thought this was because I was broken, I later grew to recognize that it was really because this was a process, and that I was really the only one expecting myself to find a snug-fitting archetype because then I could be “correct,” recognizable to the world in a way readily identifiable to the general public.

With the addition of exploration of life outside the binary—of not entirely embodying either one pole or another with respect to gender, politics, normativity, or Biggie versus Tupac—I’ve come to find less of an urgent need to immediately and fully identify with anything. We speak frequently of wearing sobriety “like a loose garment,” and over the years I’ve found it increasingly critical to adopt the same approach to the ideas and identities I have and which form me. The more tightly I cling to one prescriptive notion, the less I allow for its settling within me, inadvertently and oppositely to intent impeding my inhabitance of it. The more fiercely I defend a polarized identity, the more I seem quickly alienated from other incorporative aspects of myself, and the less I am available to connect with others. My fear that a lack of conviction and defensiveness surrounding an identity with which I (sorry) identify would result in its automatic attack and dissipation proved quite the opposite—that the less I focus on who I am, the more I evolve into a sense of ease as a person, and the more present I am to those around me.

The nature of my mirror moments has changed drastically from those of my active alcoholism, turning less graphic and panic-stricken with continued work and growth. That sense of doom and drama has progressively been replaced with a sense of quiet, a calm parting of cluttered thoughts allowing for the entrance of grace and clarity. 

Audrey Fox is a writer who lives three-quarters of the year in Brooklyn and summers in their mind. Audrey last wrote about sobering up young.

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