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I'm not who I used to be
Mourning a brilliant childhood and the onset of mental illness
To this day, my mom always tells me about how I was “friends with everyone” when I was a kid, how we’d show up to the playground and I’d make a friend within five minutes, how all the girls in my grade used to invite me to their birthday parties and slowly I stopped going to them. She talks about these things in a mournful way, an elegy for this person that slowly died in front of her. I remember dying too.
It is a unique experience to have a distinct onset of mental illness symptoms at a particular point in your adolescence, rather than it being something that was always apparent since toddlerhood. I can recognize the privilege in being able to look back on a time when I did experience pure joy regularly and had an aptitude for making human connections. I imagine that being a shy and avoidant child from the get-go comes with a lot of additional obstacles, and I can’t speak on that experience.
But I think mourning a brilliant and charismatic version of yourself for the rest of your life is also a unique pain. It is uncomfortable to be 22 and to have your 9 year old self on a pedestal, to see her as more competent than you are, to genuinely feel that you were more equipped to move throughout the world functionally when you were a child than you are now. It’s belittling and stagnant - you are stuck now, you can’t go back to her, you can only be as you are right now. I feel like something beautiful and clean that got crumpled and disfigured, like I was born with so much inherent potential that I can no longer access.
I look up to myself as a child for the same reasons I look up to my mother. They are both charismatic and charming, people are magnetized to them. They are beautiful storytellers. I used to lie a lot as a child, but it was only ever for the purpose of embellishing a good story. My mom always tells the story of when I was touring a kindergarten with her and I was wearing this beautiful red silk qipao Chinese dress (this was in 2004, before mass-awareness of cultural appropriation, give my mom a break). The director of the school told me my dress was beautiful, and I said, “Thank you, my mom got if for me in China!”. My mom had never been to China, and I did not get into the school. But it was a sweet lie - it was for the good, it was to add beauty and extravagance to something small. Now I lie about sad things to cover up sadder things.
I cling to the relics of my childhood - they’re everywhere in my room. This experience is largely painful, but I can find some beauty in it. Having a fairytale childhood where nobody hurt me and everyone loved me is a privilege that very few people get to have, and I do. It is a beautiful thing to be able to remember a time when there was nothing wrong with you, when not a single thing was painful. And it hurts that I can’t go back there, but part of reckoning with it is knowing that there wouldn’t be much of a life without the growing part, where the needles and thickets grow larger and you have to figure out how to move through them.