Finding Me

I used to be in love with a hipster European boy. He was everything I wasn’t (and still am not). He rode bike to work and around the city. He even built his own bikes. He listened to vinyl records, watched 80s movies, collected black and white posters and kissed me while playing an electric organ. He was my first love. Well, love is a big word but I gave him that. I had never felt something so strong for anyone before and probably even after him. And now having been through enough, done enough (shit), I know why.

It wasn’t because he was any better than any other boy (he was probably worse) but it was because when I met him I was a blank paper waiting to be drawn on and you know, the first is always the most memorable. He happened to be that first, the one who filled me up with feelings I didn’t know existed, feelings that were so intense I thought I might have exploded. The one who gave me answers I didn’t know I was looking for. The one who shaped my very first ideas of many things including what “beautiful” and “cool” meant and who I was in comparison. I looked up to him. I wanted to be like him and fit in with his world — with beautiful and cool, or so I thought at the time.

But I already knew I couldn’t. I knew in my bones that I wasn’t his kind of cool. I found no place among him and his group of friends. I didn’t know anything about vinyl records. I didn’t roll my own cigarettes. I didn’t drink beer and sing along to old American pop songs, or wear vintage clothes. I was just an ordinary teenage girl who fell in love with a boy who might have well come from another planet — fascinating. The whole time I was being around him exposed to his chilled out lifestyle, I felt so inadequate. Inadequate because he didn’t choose me, wouldn’t be with me. I was convinced I wasn’t good enough, my life wasn’t good enough. I told myself “you are so awkward, so plain, so unattractive” as I watched him fixing his bike in the corridor, realising painfully well that I would never come close to being the way he was and being the girl for him. How effortlessly cool.

Five months later, I moved away from him. I no longer saw bikes and vinyl records and Al Pacino posters on a daily basis. I started building own world and forming new definitions of “beautiful” and “cool” while accepting more facts about myself as a person to which I had stopped attaching the cool or uncool label — they were just me. Though I was still only making baby steps. At the naive age of 18, even though I could tell I was slowly growing as my thinking matured up, I had to face the fact that my actions did not match that thinking and I was still confused and lost and easily influenced by the outside world. Along the way, inevitably, many new people I met then again shook my ground and made me question myself (and well, my level of coolness). My self-esteem went up and down like a sin diagram with newfound relationships and ultimate heartbreaks.

I was trying so desperately to be seen and loved and for once be one of the good ones but couldn’t help but feel like I was a fraud — misunderstood, underrated and… wrong somewhere. I perpetually struggled between wanting to fix myself and not knowing what exactly to fix and why I would have to. I was insecure and had no firm foundation for my self esteem. It was almost like I had no world of my own (or had one but didn’t know how to love it and live in it) and the minute I was with someone, their world became shiny and I immediately got engrossed in it. I shifted my focus on them, on anything away from myself. I wanted to be like them, feel like them, get accepted and loved by them because it would mean I was just as beautiful and cool. Because not being me would mean beautiful and cool. That was how much I didn’t like myself.

When I was with the hipster boy I idolised anything handcrafting, drinking, smoking, disorganised living, chilled out attitude, Camden town and old movies. I felt ashamed about going to a private sixth form college, wearing high street brands, listening to top chart pop songs and most of all, about caring too much. Then when I was with a handsome dancer boy at university, I wished every night I could look as fit and have as many friends. I couldn’t talk about my writing with confidence and I felt like an ugly duckling next to him, worrying he would soon find out I was a fraud pretending to be on his league. When I was with a Tinder boy who… vaped, I suddenly grew an interest in vaping (?!) and would discuss it with him as though I had known about it all my life (obviously I didn’t!) At this point I still couldn’t share about my writing, my job, my life or anything me with pride. In a nutshell, I disappeared slowly into the man I was with and I was breaking inside until there wasn’t anything left to break. I became nothing.

But luckily, despite all that self-hate and misjudgement, I had always been blessed with one thing: self-awareness. I knew in my gut that there was something wrong there and I could’ve done way better. The problem was my actions and habits were still slow to catch up and I hadn’t given myself enough convincing evidence that I could actually change. Finally, 2016 was the year I was able to give myself that evidence. I got a full-time job which steadily enabled the lifestyle I’d always wanted. Inside I hadn’t yet felt as happy and confident as I would like; however outside, because now with the money I earned I physically could, I lived externally as if regardless. I ate better food, bought better clothes, took better care of my health and appearance. I allowed myself to have more fun and stop beating myself up over stupid things. To my own amazement, I became interested in my own life. And wonderfully, it gradually transformed the rest.

Even in my dating life, I could see the positive changes in my default thinking and initial reactions to unwanted outcomes. The end of 2016 to the beginning of 2017 was that transitioning period. I began the summer with a bunch of random Tinder dates, falling for people who were looking for different things from me and gradually realising what went wrong: I didn’t know how to set boundaries. I didn’t even actually have boundaries. As I was lying in bed with a boy who got upset with me because he couldn’t finish and showed a visibly aggressive attitude towards me the next morning (plus countless other negative attributes I chose to ignore), I was sure that was it. That was my breaking point. The old me would have stressed over how to please him better but the now me decided straight away that I didn’t deserve such treatment. How poorly he treated me was on him, not me, and I wanted nothing to do with it.

We mutually cut contact and I have never reached out to him since and will never do. At the time it hurt a lot. But in hindsight, cliche as it might sound, I was grateful those horrible Tinder dudes happened to me. Because they gave me an opportunity to find my inner strength and accept who I really was. More importantly, they pushed me towards the person I’d always wanted to become. Seriously, I needed that push. Evidently, thanks to that last Tinder guy, I got motivation to commit to two wonderful things: I got a tattoo on my thigh and I hit the gym. It has been amazing beyond words because it’s such a fundamental change to my lifestyle and identity. I’ve been feeling happier and healthier and like myself more than I ever was. I’ve found joy. I’ve fallen in love with my life. I now have my own “beautiful” and “cool” because I have enough confidence in myself to decide if something is beautiful and cool and I’m ready to take that stance at all time. After all, it’s subjective anyway. Mine is just as valid as the rest of the planet’s.

See, from feeling like nothing in a dorm room bed at 2 o’clock in the morning to genuinely believing I was worth something even at my lowest point, there wasn’t any big, epiphany moment. My life didn’t just turn around. It was a long process that had lots of ups and downs, lots of failing and standing back up, lots of telling myself “I wish I could die right now” and “no, it’s going to be okay” and lots of physical efforts. And certainly it doesn’t end here. Even the full-time job itself wasn’t easy at first either. I cried. I felt depressed. I thought of throwing everything away because “what’s the point?” But ultimately as I held on and tried harder, it was okay. Perhaps sometimes it will be not okay, anxiety will tighten every cell in my body but at least my feet won’t be shaking anymore. My ground will remain firm as I’m laying a new brick each day on it by caring after myself, by reflecting on my experiences, by learning and trying to become a better person who lives fully both inside and out.

A few weeks ago, I came to see a friend in Camden on a late Friday. I didn’t realise the place was a packed pub full of young hippies with drinks in their hands, mouth singing to the music. I was immediately brought back to the memories of my first love, the European boy, and to the me I used to be. Like the old days, I felt out of place. I knew I wasn’t cool to my friend’s friends in that setting. But this time I didn’t feel less than or a need to change myself. I just knew that place wasn’t for me and I didn’t have to be there at all. So I enjoyed it as much as I could then politely excused myself. I checked the clock and as I noticed I still had a couple of hours before the last train home, I went to the gym. And that was that. It was a good night.

On that note, committing to the gym has taught me that I’m capable of changing my life and becoming who I want to be. It’s all about making good habits and having genuine interest in those habits to keep them going. It’ll be hard at first but it’s definitely possible and it will be absolutely worth it. What’s next for me is that I want to nurture my inner world as much as my physical living. Fitness might have become a critical part of my life but I don’t ever want to just focus on physical attributes because I’m so much more than that. Ultimately, confidence must come from inside, from deep self-understanding and acceptance which I’m still working on each day. For that reason, this journey shall continue. For now I want to read more books and have more interesting hobbies. I want to travel and expand my knowledge of the world around me. And I hope to make people’s lives around me better.

2017 will be a great year.

 

Ellen Nguyen

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I like bagels