When I was in elementary school, every day, us kids were given a brief relief from academic pursuits in the form of recess. At the onset of these classroom breaks, most of us joyfully bolted up from our desks and, reveling in our temporary freedom, barreled through the side door while others of us had to be gently shooed out of the room. Depending on the time of year, it could be swelteringly hot outside or a pleasant 68 degrees. This was Florida; afternoon temperatures scarcely ever fell beneath 68. But temperature was never that big of a big deal.
There on the playground, each child was pretty much left to their own devices. The timid and shy ones would stand out of the way and hang out along the sidelines.. absentmindedly knocking the toes of their shoes into the dirt as they watched their peers performing various activities on the jungle gym and achieving impressive acrobatic feats on the monkey bars.
I liked to swing. It was easy, relatively safe, and could be done solo. I also liked playing red rover. I preferred being a part of the chain, though.. the chain that the designated “red rover” person would have to go running full-speed at and attempt to break through. Not only was I a not-super-strong child, but I also didn’t have the mental “gumption” required for me to intentionally and forcefully slam my body against a wave of youngsters. It seemed awkward and I just couldn’t do it.
So take this image of children romping around on a playground — children with differing dispositions, personalities, and appearances — and apply it to your mind. Do you have a small collection of people roaming about inside of your head? Children, adults.. maybe both? Do they compete for your attention? Are some more vocal, or visibly more confident, than others? Does the group tend to bicker and fight, or do they get along nicely? And are they occupying something along the lines of a playground, or are they elsewhere; performing on stage in a theater, perhaps, or sitting dutifully at uniform desks in a classroom.. or maybe they’re all on a great, big adventure together.. wearing space suits and freely orbiting around the galaxy?
Mine are pacing around a seated adult in a simple, quiet, and sterile white room.
I haven’t always been aware of them; the people. There were, on occasion, bursts of clarity in my life; moments where the sun would light up the clouds, outlining them with a brilliant hue and laser-beaming right through them.. and in moments like these, I could almost hear their hushed voices whispering to me in reverb-laden echoes. But in general, the first 23 years of my life were relatively quiet and hazy. I read that sentence to myself and think: wow.. how fucking dramatic. But it’s 100% true. Life was hazy.
I spent years 0-18 in various ways; initially, by playing with Bobby before he became really sick, and then, by entertaining and amusing myself in the strange shadow of Bobby’s illness. As I aged, I experienced the joy of studying textbooks, memorizing dates and facts, and then testing out to prove my “competency” in elementary school. My mother observed, in the 4th grade, that I was “picking up an attitude from my peers,” so I was quickly removed from public school (half-way through the school year; she does not play) and endured the mental hardship of teaching myself math and science during three miserable years of homeschooling. During this time frame, I “adjusted” my attitude and was eventually allowed to re-enter public school as a 7th grader. I was thrilled to the core about being readmitted, but I was also incredibly anxious, as I was fully convinced that, because I had been learning at what I considered a disadvantage for 3 years — half-assedly working my way through material that stumped my parents and me and struggling to demystify new subjects, difficult concepts, and weird math formulas on my own (without the presence of a qualified teacher) — I would be the dumbest kid in the building. Despite straight A’s and compliments from teachers, I’ve carried that inferiority complex with me all the way to adulthood, and I’m still trying to dispense with it.
After acclimating to public school life again, I became bored with even the advanced classes, so I took on the endeavor of attending 11th grade public school classes in-person and registering for 12th grade classes online (so that I could graduate early). I was able to graduate a year early, and immediately upon doing so, I began serving full-time at Cracker Barrel in an effort to save money for college (I knew that my tuition costs weren’t simply going to be handed to me, and I definitely knew that I didn’t want to deal with student loans.) Life quickly changed direction as academic pursuits gave way to double shifts where I’d serve for six hours, run to the back of the restaurant to greedily scarf down a single cornbread muffin, and then walk back out onto the floor to take orders and run food for another 6 hours. That was life: 12 hours of serving, every day, about six days a week, for 7 months straight. After 7 months, I took a break so that I could attend a seminary for religious cult members up in Mountaindale, New York, and then I returned to serving.
So childhood, adolescence and teenager-hood (ages 0-18) were all an unremarkable and uninterrupted blur of play, academics, and work ethics.
Then, I met Chris.
The five years I spent married to Chris were like a fairy tale.. but it’s like I was an actor who was parading about as a princess and who, after reading their lines and assuming their role for so long, forgot that they were just in-character, and began to believe that they really were a princess. And while this belief existed at the forefront of my mind, it never seemed.. right. It was a strange sort of confusion; a confusion that was ever-present but didn’t exactly say “I’m confused” so much as “Something is missing, and I can’t remember what it is.” That’s the misgiving, the feeling, that I carried with me for five years; a general sense of intrinsic and intuitive “off-ness.” Life was white-washed, glazed over and, while pleasant, fictitious. It read like fiction. Here’s the best way I can describe it: I felt like my spirit was constantly hanging half-way outside of my physical body and I couldn’t figure out how to reel it back in and contain it. I couldn’t contain it because I wasn’t familiar enough with its true character to recognize it, and I definitely wasn’t open-minded enough to accept and welcome it for who it was.. and it knew that. It had to wait a very long time to reveal itself to me. And that big reveal — that insanely simple moment of truth (when my being jolted into life after a simple encounter with a stranger as I walked through Publix, wearing my motorcycle gear, 18 months ago) was so strikingly simple and so memorable that it’s astounding. Recalling it and thinking about it, it still astounds me. That 15-second conversation, the devastating feeling that it caused, and the journey that resulted because of it is seared into the grooves of my mind; it’s absolutely unforgettable. The exchange, and the awakening, figuratively took a ball off of the pool table and threw it onto the floor, setting it in motion, and that ball has continued rolling and gaining in momentum and force as each day has passed. Each day, I consciously decide to not resist the peeling away of familiar fronts and old layers, and I simultaneously choose to, without judgment, accept the emergence of my true self as it continues to unfold. It’s, admittedly, an uncomfortable process sometimes, but I’ll always prefer living a difficult and honest life over a pleasant and fictitious one.
Some would say that I’m living a second life as Jace, and I’d almost agree with them.. but I prefer to view Jace as the natural outgrowth — the continuation, extension, or truest expression — of Rose.
But returning to our topic — the people inside our heads — mine are in a constant state of pacing around a seated adult in a plain white room, and I haven’t always been aware of them or the room.
I first became aware of them late last year. I was talking with a friend when an image of them flashed suddenly into my mind. It was startling; how easily I identified them for having never seen them. There are (5) people total present in the room at all times.
- A sweet girl.. she looks 15.
- A mean girl.. she appears to be the same age, but where sweet girl wears an easy smile, mean girl likes to scowl.
- A quiet boy. He’s about 14 or 15 also.
- My favorite.. a brave boy. He is my champion.
And the 5th person is, I’ve gathered, me. I’m the adult, seated on a wooden chair in the middle of the room, and I’m a boy, too, but I’m a bit older than the other two boys. I never speak. I never move. I just sit there in the center; watching them as they move, and listening to them as they speak to one another. They talk to each other, mostly, but when they do address me directly, they never seem to expect a response. I don’t exactly interact with them.
They critique my appearance. My writing. My music. My actions. My desires. My hopes and dreams. Pretty much everything that I say, think, or do. Some of the critiquing is positive and complimentary; some of it is incredibly harsh.
Sweet Girl is kind. She looks like I used to look; simple.. wearing long, brown hair, bluish-green eyes, and a women’s v-neck tee with some blue denim jeans. She’s, in three words, warm, supportive, and forgiving.
Mean Girl is a fucking bitch. She hates my hairy legs and underarms, makes fun of my lack of social skills and overall awkwardness, and loves to point out the strange pigmentation spots on the back and sides of my head when I’ve had my hair shaved at the barber shop.
Quiet Boy is consistently present, and he seems to listen to the conversations in the room, but he rarely has the guts to speak up and say anything. He just keeps his hands tucked into his pockets and his head down. Rather than looking around at the others, he’ll peer up at the wall sometimes. There’s a door in the room, and he stays within a reasonable distance of it, but he never tries to open it.
Brave Boy is my hero. He’s got short hair, a pronounced jawline, and galaxy eyes. He stands up straight, confidently, and always looks very relaxed in a sleek, slim-fit gray suit. He wears Vans with the suit, and for that reason alone, he is amazing. He’s talkative and sociable, but not overly so. When Mean Girl starts berating me, he speaks up — not so much to encourage me as to directly reprove her. He isn’t afraid to do so. He is smart, quick-witted, and courageous. He never shrinks in Mean Girl’s presence, and he’s kind to Sweet Girl and Quiet Boy. I tune into his voice as often as possible because it’s soothing and inspiring.
The group held a conversation with me and each other yesterday afternoon as I was doing some research on the computer.. but first, here’s a little back story.
I received my Associate’s Degree in Business Science two years ago from Jeff State. It’s a puny achievement, but it’s one that I’m proud of, because it took me (4) years of working full-time and attending class part-time to obtain the degree. I put my everything into obtaining that degree, and I graduated with a 3.96 GPA. Not too shabby.
After graduating, I decided to take “some time” off before pursuing the next level of academic achievement (aka, my Bachelor’s). Chris and I used this off time to become more active – picking up hobbies like skateboarding and biking – and to tap back into our creativity. We formed a band together and spent a full year touring bars downtown and playing gigs with a drummer, electric guitarist and bassist — playing, mostly, for free at open mics, but also enjoying a few paid gigs that took us to some interesting places; namely, a motorcycle club’s annual meeting, an outdoor craft festival, and an insurance company’s summer party. For the latter, we set our gear up beside a xerox machine and played at quarter-volume for our paper flamingo and toucan audience (which was taped to the walls) while old people in business clothes floated slowly around the room, sipping on mixed drinks and eating pimento cheese sandwiches. It was fantastic.
After the band split up, I continued playing at a few select venues (where either the pay was good or the atmosphere was fun). August of 2015 rolled around and I lazily watched it approach and then pass: “I want a little more time away from school,” I thought to myself. “I just can’t deal with the added stress right now.”
And now, it’s June of 2016. Another year has passed. Registration starts next month and, classes, the following month. For the last three weeks, there’s been a voice in the back of my head, urging me to return to school.. and I’m pretty sure it’s Brave Boy’s.
Deciding to toy with the idea, I was conducting some light research online yesterday — acquainting myself with UAB’s undergraduate education program and gauging how feasible it would be for me to re-enter the world of academia — when the white room group suddenly became rowdy.
Here’s how it started.
I was perusing the catalog of requirements when, totally unannounced, a moving picture show began playing in my mind: I stumbled into this scene of future me walking into work as a teacher.. striding across the sidewalk in front of a blurry, out-of-focus school. How neat! I mused. I passed by a rack of bicycles and a sea of bouncing backpacks, wearing classy, brown men’s shoes and carrying a briefcase. It was a faceless, masculine image of myself that came very naturally to me; completely spontaneously. I smiled at it. I watched as my future self opened the double doors of the school and then entered the classroom — my classroom. There was such a pleasant and euphoric sense of pride in the idea of that; of having my very own class. I spent time on the lesson, of course; incorporating what I considered to be fun stories that would help illustrate certain points in the lesson, and implementing creative and interactive exercises into class assignments that would help solidify students’ understanding of the material.
Near the end of class, as everyone was wrapping up their work, I posed some kind of interesting life question, and then I waited to hear back from the classroom. The students used to steal glances at each other and laugh; in the beginning, it seemed lame to engage with the teacher by answering their question. But someone had broken the ice — probably some nerdy kid — and then everyone had participated in the discussion. We’d all grown to look forward to these moments. Not just me. As the film reel continued rolling pleasantly in my mind, a student near the front-right of the classroom raised a hand to offer their opinion in response to my question.
“Mr. Yarbrough?” They asked.
My heart stopped. It was so perfect; it had sounded so beautiful. But I knew, instantly, that – were I to become a teacher someday – I wouldn’t be Mr. Yarbrough. Only in my dreams.
“DUH!” A familiar voice interjected. “Oh.. come ON. You KNOW that this is ALL just a silly dream. The whole thing; you being ‘Jace.'” Mean Girl sounded exasperated.
“But it hurt,” I thought back at her. “It hurt to be called Rose, and it would hurt to be called ‘Ms. Yarbrough.'”
“It doesn’t matter. ‘Mister’ doesn’t make sense.. not for you. As a teacher, you would HAVE to be MS. Yarbrough.” She folded her arms defiantly and smiled a little, just knowing that she was right. Jerk.
Side note: Despite being referred to as “Ms.” and “Ma’am” in the present (and being somewhat okay with it), I guess I still hold onto this dream, this idea, that – in the future – I’ll be recognized as a boy. Not just on occasion but.. full-time. All the time. It’s a subconscious belief; I don’t MEAN to hope for it or to believe in it because of how unrealistic it is.. and yet I do. I can’t help it.
I felt my face contort in disappointment at Mean Girl’s words. My eyes were, in real life, simply facing a computer screen, but I was still in that future classroom, completely frozen in front of a class full of students.
“Ms. Yarbrough?” I breathed out loud to myself, testing it out. “Ugh, NO. THAT doesn’t sound right AT ALL.. it sounds horrible, AND it feels horrible!”
I waved the image of Mean Girl away and pushed her dumb voice into the background as I struggled to find some kind of remedy for the situation.
Eventually, I posed this question to the group: “Could they call me Mr. Jace?”
“NO!” Mean Girl was the first to respond. “YOU’RE STILL NOT GETTING IT,” she rolled her eyes and scanned the room, surveying everyone else. I watched as Quiet Boy lowered his head and moved away from her. Sweet Girl pursed her lips and said nothing.
“It’s as simple as this,” Mean Girl began, standing up tall and addressing the adult – me – who was seated in the middle of the room. “You aren’t a mister. And you never will be. It’s impossible.”
I noticed the adult’s posture. Hunched over. He looked tired and defeated. Judging by his body language, you’d almost think that he didn’t care, but I knew better. He cared deeply — too deeply — and it was exhausting him.
“Just have them call you Jace,” Brave Boy suggested suddenly. “No pronoun necessary.” His tone was casual, but it also carried a firmness to it that challenged anyone in the room to disagree with him.
Mean Girl said nothing.
I appreciated the idea and Mean Girl’s silence, but I couldn’t help but picture fellow teachers giving stern looks of disapproval upon hearing students call out “Hey, Jace!” to me in the hallway. How unprofessional, they’d murmur to one another. Then I imagined the principal calling me into their office and holding a special meeting to address “some concerns.” During this meeting, they’d frown at me from across a polished, wooden table as they commented on my inappropriate informality with students. I sighed. So much for first-name basis.
Reading my mind and seeing what I was envisioning, Brave Boy knelt down beside me. “Don’t worry about any of that yet,” he whispered. “The important thing is that you’re qualified, that you’re kind to your students, and that you teach them well. And you know that you can do all of those things. The first step is becoming officially qualified.” He smiled at me. Beautiful smile.
Feeling a little heavy-hearted but slightly comforted, I turned off my computer, deciding that I’d done enough research for the day. I’ll call and speak with an advisor next week, I resolved. Putting it off again.
My mind fell quiet.
We all have different personas.. personas with varying faces and tones and demeanors that we call upon and manifest in the presence of certain people. They’re how we cope. We employ them so that we can better relate to others, and we also use them to comfortably and authentically express ourselves. As people, our outward expression of ourselves shifts and adjusts constantly because we change constantly, and the company we’re in also changes constantly. The ongoing evolvement of our expressions of ourselves as individuals changes due to internal and external stimuli.
I believe that we carry different versions of ourselves within us, and that they exist prominently in our minds. Some versions that are present are our best selves.. they support, uphold and defend us (like Brave Boy) and challenge us to do the things we’re too lazy or too scared to attempt. We admire these representations of ourselves; we view them as the lovely outcome of our most-fully developed potential, and we strive to become like them. Other versions of ourselves – fearful, passionless, unconfident, and self-hating versions – are dangerously negative and critical. They will ceaselessly try to drag us down, so it’s important that we’re aware of them and learn how to manage them.
“You have to challenge the negative self-talk,” a friend advised me recently. “Don’t ignore it, and don’t fight with it, either. Challenge it. When you get up in the morning, get dressed, look into the mirror and a voice asks: ‘Oh.. so you’re wearing that today?’, you respond with: ‘Yes, I am, and I’m going to make it look good.’ Do this, and keep doing it — consistently challenge the negative thoughts and respond kindly to the negative voice — and eventually, the negative internal chatter will just die away. Maybe not altogether, but it will at least become increasingly difficult to hear.”
I’m going to try it out; challenging the negative self-talk (as it pertains to appearance, ideas, beliefs, dreams.. everything). The next time Mean Girl pipes up with her bullshit drama, giving me the same spiel she always does (IE: you’re ugly, you’re weird, you’re stupid and no one actually likes you), I’m going to stand up – right there in the middle of the room and in front of everyone – and look her square in the face.
“I hear you,” I’ll say, “and I’ve heard you all these years.. always saying the same thing, and always trying to put me down and then keep me there. I’ve considered your ideas; I really have. I’ve given them careful thought, and here’s how I feel about them: I’m NOT ugly. I’m average-looking. I may or may not be weird, but that’s both relative and irrelevant. I’m clearly NOT stupid because I can count and read and SORT OF successfully decoupage (please see below for a decoupaged, dalek-themed dinette table), and I don’t believe that “no one truly likes me.” I love the people in my life, openly and fiercely and unconditionally, and I know that they can feel it.. and I believe that many of them love me back. They may not love me as much as I love them, but that’s not the point. They care about me to whatever degree they’re capable of, and I appreciate that. I actually thrive off of it, if I’m being honest with myself. Relationships are far more important and integral to life than I care to admit. I’m scared of how dependent upon the love and companionship of friends and family I am; it makes me feel weak and somewhat dependent on others because.. well, I am. And that’s okay. To an extent. Look; it’s like this: I’m cared for, and I’m lovable, because I care about and love others. That’s how it works.”
The end. So yeah; when she rears her ugly head again, I’m ready to face her. Me and my army of daleks.
I was experiencing a low last week.
I walked into Saturn, tossed my backpack onto “my couch” and then – keeping my eyes down on the concrete floor – hastily walked over to the restroom. After disappearing behind the door to the women’s room and washing my hands, I exited the restroom and began making my way back over to my couch when I heard:
I looked up and Payton – my favorite barista with blue-green eyes and blue-tipped blonde hair – was leaning over the counter, smiling at me and cupping a pretty blue mug between her hands. She extended it towards me, and I looked down at it; at that familiar, swirly white heart weaved daintily into the top of the liquid’s brown surface. The sight of it instantly warmed my soul.
“My mocha!” I exclaimed happily. I hadn’t even ordered it yet. “I didn’t think you’d noticed me walk in,” I admitted to her, smiling. She asked me how my open mic performance had gone the previous week, and then we continued chatting with each other.
“See? She likes you,” Brave Boy winked at me.
“Ummmmm yeah RIGHT! A. She’s engaged, and B. I like her as a friend,” I stuttered quickly.
Quiet Boy whistled to himself a little, with his hands in his pockets, and smiled collaboratively with Sweet Girl.
“Whatever,” Mean Girl grumbled at all four of us, staring at a wall.
I’m sorry you’re so miserable, I thought towards her, gently. Because I’m not anymore.