I had my first Don Draper moment in 2004.
I was at home on winter break after a personally disastrous first semester of my junior year of college. Sixteen years later, good and grown, I’m embarrassed at how viscerally I can recall the moment that snapped me in two; that I still tear up over something so small in hindsight because I can still feel myself shattering. The details are irrelevant, just know the situation is what I think of when I hear Destiny’s Child’s “Is She the Reason.”
If you’re a woman of a certain age, you can piece that particular disaster together.
On top of that, I was nursing another failure. Let’s just say I’d semi-committed to a certain organization and on the precipice of said commitment, realized my history with depression and what it would take to fulfill the commitment was a recipe for disaster. It wasn’t the type of thing I could walk away from with my reputation unscathed, so I anticipated some serious social consequences when I returned to campus for the following semester.
At some point during December 2004, while I licked my wounds from my bedroom in my mother’s apartment, I decided that the self I’d been up to that point had to die. Oddly, a quote from the boy who left me in pieces echoed in my head: “Play pussy. Get fucked.” I’d given too many people too much power and the version of me who allowed that bullshit would die in the tears I shed over break.
I was twenty-one years old. Petite, maybe too small for some, but pretty enough to receive appreciative glares when I strutted across campus. I still had a 3.9 GPA and rockstar status among all the professors in my major (Mass Media Communications). I had a group of ride-or-die homegirls, more sisters than friends, who had my back against all odds. There was a reason that organization wanted me; a reason that boy used my heartbreak as a boon to his fragile ego…
I was the shit. Henceforth, I would not allow anyone else the privilege of seeing me be small for them. My doubts, my fears, my nervousness, I’d bury them beneath the shiny veneer of the person I needed to be: polished, ambitious, and unapologetically arrogant.
I’d fake it until I made it. And you know what, reader? That shit worked.
With an adorable, preppy wardrobe from Express, a swing in my step, and the lyrics to Remy Ma’s “Conceited“[*] on a permanent loop in my head, the woman you know and love today was born; a phoenix soaring from the ashes of the Miss Goody Two Shoes I’d been for the first twenty years of my life.
It’s a tactic I’ve employed repeatedly and my twenties and early thirties were a roller coaster ride of adrenaline-inducing highs and devastating lows. After each crash, I’d survey the damage, decide who I needed to be to get back on my feet and throw myself into becoming that person full-throttle until I hammered any imposter syndrome into oblivion.
I guess that’s what makes this moment so unfamiliar. By my early thirties, flaming out exhausted me so I never let it happen again; opting for a consistent, manageable, neverending middle. My death this time around was a slow sputter, each stuttering cough releasing tiny puffs of fire until one day I put the car in neutral and coasted for as long as I could without any gas.
Which brings me to the present. A moment I can’t “decide who you want to be and become it” my way out of.
Because this time around, I don’t want to be someone new? I don’t want to whip my being into an idealized version of myself that requires all my mental energy to maintain. As terrifying as it sounds, I want to stand in the present and be in it, trusting I can handle what comes my way.
I want to be so comfortable in my skin that I don’t need a new self.
[*] Apparently, I took “I look too good to be having kids” literally.