Authenticity. What does it mean to be authentic? I’ve been contemplating this concept for a long time, because you hear about it everywhere these days. I want to tell you that my authenticity has been something I’ve fought hard for. It is not by accident that I try to be genuinely me, as much as I can.
“Authentic” means genuine. I am the same ‘me’ anywhere and everywhere I go. I’m ‘me’ at an IEP meeting, at the grocery store, at the doctor, or chatting with you at a coffee shop. But you should know that I didn’t always know who ‘me’ was. It’s taken four decades and a lot of work to first of all know who I am, and second to feel comfortable in my own skin. Four decades, people! That’s literally my lifetime!
I lost myself once. For about five years, I couldn’t find ‘me.’ I literally forgot how to be ‘me.’ I was lost.
From the time I was 13 until I was 18, I was deep in culture shock. And I was functionally depressed. I was able to function in my daily life, but I was more depressed than I’ve ever been. I just didn’t know it. I had no idea what was wrong with me, I just knew that I was no longer myself and as hard as I tried, I couldn’t find myself. I forgot who I had been. And I was terrified, because I was pretty sure I would never remember how to be ‘me’ ever again.
When I was 13, my family moved from being missionaries in Central African Republic in West Africa to living in missionary housing in St. Paul, MN. It was October, and I was going to finish 8th grade at my new junior high. When we left Africa, I had been the only 8th grader in the school. I was the oldest of all the kids, grades 1-8. I had become as used to living away from my parents as I could over the past seven years. My friends at school were my brothers and sisters; we had all grown up together.
When I met my guidance counselor at Murray Junior High for the first time, I stood to shake his hand. For a split second, there was a hush in the room. He hesitated and then awkwardly stretched his hand to meet mine. I realized in a flash of embarrassment that this is not what “normal” American kids do— shake hands.
In Africa, you shake hands with everyone, always. There are even different forms of handshakes depending on who you’re meeting and your relationship. I grew up shaking hands with everyone I met. Even when we traveled in Europe, handshaking was the norm. But I saw in that instant that this was not how American kids greeted anyone. It hit me right in the face how different I was. How foreign this new culture was. How much I didn’t know about how to function in this culture. How hard I would have to work to fly under the radar and not make any more stupid mistakes to draw attention to myself and what a frumpy missionary kid I was. And I wanted to curl up and die.
That’s my first memory of my new, permanent life in America. Technically, I had been to school here before. Every two years, my family lived in America for a few months. My parents always scheduled our furloughs in the fall so my brother and I could experience American school. Honestly, it was always torture for me. I pretty much hated it. I didn’t know anything about American culture. I didn’t know the cool things to wear, I didn’t know the cool things to say, or how to act. It was mortifying, all the time. I was bullied because I would tell classmates I was “from Africa.” They didn’t understand because my skin was white. How could I be African? I didn’t have the words or wherewithal to explain that my parents worked in Africa, and we were visiting America for a few months. I was teased by the white kids and teased by the black kids. They made it clear I did not fit in anywhere, with any group.
It was a nightmare. Now in 8th grade, I was stuck here in the nightmare with no escape back to my home in Africa on the horizon anymore.
After I greeted my counselor in the wrong way that day I visited my junior high for the first time, he took me to my new locker. I had never used a locker before in my life. I panicked. How would I remember where it was in this sea of identical lockers that lined literally every hallway in the school? How would I remember my combination? How was I going to be able to do this?
I went back to our apartment, went to bed, and didn’t get up for days. I could not face the world. I could not go to that school. No one could make me. It was too much. I had faced a lot in my young life, but this was too much. I was not capable of handling this level of stress.
Dad came in to my room after I had missed several days of school. He sat on the edge of my bed and patted my back in his Daddy Way. He talked to me about how going to this new school was just something I had to do. I just had to get up and do it.
Somehow I did. I had a stomach ache almost every day for the next few years, but I did it. I even made friends at that crazy big junior high. And- my claim to fame in my family- I won my class spelling bee that year. And went on to the school spelling bee and the district and county bees! I almost got to State, but misspelled the word “avarice.” A-v-A-r-i-c-e. DUH! Not av-E-rice! I’ve never misspelled that word since. My dad still gets choked up when he tells this story of his little missionary girl, standing up on all those stages in front of all those strangers, spelling word after word into a microphone. My 10 seconds of fame.
After 8th grade we moved to a suburb of Chicago. I thought junior high was a nightmare- ha! My high school had several thousand students. THOUSAND. I had never seen so many people in one place in my entire life. That’s when my Not Me period began for real.
During high school, I realized I just wasn’t me. I didn’t remember how to be me. I didn’t feel like me. I didn’t know how to act like me. Everything was new and weird and scary and out of control. I felt trapped in my head, where I knew who I used to be, but couldn’t make myself act like me. I was quiet at school. Quiet at my church youth group. And I’d never ever been quiet before! I wore baggy clothes to try and disappear. I didn’t fit in with any group. I was just super weird. I just wanted to not get up. I didn’t want to feel my stomach hurt and clench and have to face my new reality ever day.
I didn’t know I was experiencing culture shock. “Culture shock” is defined as the feeling of disorientation experienced by someone who is suddenly subjected to an unfamiliar culture, way of life, or set of attitudes. (Lexico.com) “Disorientation” is putting it mildly. If you experience culture shock, it overwhelms you, eats you up, and consumes you to the point that you can’t break out of its prison. Looking back, I realize I was also functionally depressed and suffering from anxiety. I was able to get through the day, and do well at school, make some friends, appear fine. But I was so terrified because I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was certain that my sense of ‘me’ had been lost forever. It was terrible. I didn’t know where the old ‘me’ had gone, why it had gone, or if it would come back. I would have given anything to be ‘me’ again. I vowed if I ever found ‘me’ again, I would never take it for granted. I would cherish ‘me’ forever.
‘Me’ started to return when I was 18 years old. College was a breath of fresh air. Everyone was new. Everyone felt weird. Everyone was finding themselves. I fit in to that. I started to recover pieces of my long-lost self. And I loved it. I loved feeling like me again after so many years of not knowing what was wrong with me.
There were many years when I tried to just blend in, or blur out. I didn’t want people to notice how different I felt. I didn’t want anyone to know I was “from Africa.” More than anything, I wanted people to like me. Please just like me. Forgive the fact that I don’t know how to fully fit in to this culture, and just love me for who I am— frumpy, weird missionary kid and all.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found ‘me’ in deeper and more meaningful ways.
I can honestly say that I’m at a place in my life where I’m happy and content. I’m so proud to have found all the pieces of ‘me,’ and to have put them back together to make the ‘me’ that I am today. I’m still super weird, but I like being me. I like the clothes I wear and my loud laugh that makes my children blush with embarrassment. I love that I will run across a parking lot to tell a stranger that I adore the color of her yellow dress, and that she looks fabulous. (Which makes my introvert husband cringe and duck his head as he chuckles at my constant authenticity.) I love that I will tell the grocery check out girl that I love her nails. I love that I have a nose ring and wear hats. I love being so easily ‘me.’ I’m grateful every day when I wake up and know that I can easily and comfortably be ‘me’ today, because there was such a long time of struggling to find ‘me.’
Don’t take being authentic for granted. Don’t take who you are for granted, because some people aren’t lucky enough to live inside Authenticity. Some people feel lost and alone, and are fighting tooth and nail to reclaim their authentic selves.
I feel blown away when someone calls me “authentic,” because it’s the biggest compliment I could ever get. Not only have I uncovered the real ‘me’ from the cold prison of culture shock, but I have discovered how to be ‘me,’ be happy, and thrive. I wish I could go back to my teenaged self and reassure her that it’ll be ok. Our 40-something-year old self is completely fine. Completely authentic. Because we fought for authenticity and found it.
Be authentic. Be genuinely you. You were put here, in this life, for a reason. The world doesn’t need a fake you. It needs Authentic You. Life loves you when you can show up as your true self. Sometimes it seems impossible, but that makes authenticity even more powerful. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Authenticity is not easy sometimes. But speaking as someone who lost herself and never thought she’d recognize herself ever again, I can tell you: living authentically is so worth it.