Sometimes I feel like the eight months I spent in Ann Arbor during my freshman year didn’t actually happen. When I reflect on certain memories — studying in the Law Library, eating No Thai with friends, watching people walk down below from high up in the Hatcher Stacks — they don’t seem real. Instead, freshman year feels like a scene from a TV show. I see myself act out a character that doesn’t really exist. My ties to Ann Arbor have slowly eroded throughout these last four summer months, and now there is nothing left to connect me to this place except memories I can’t bring myself to trust.
This disconnect stems from the fact that, as a freshman, terrified by loneliness and rejection, I often pretended to be someone I was not. I shoved my true personality to the back of my mind as I attempted to please everyone I met. I wanted so desperately to be loved and wanted that I did anything to form relationships, even if that meant lying to myself and others by consciously obscuring parts of myself that I deemed “unworthy” or “uncool”. I would conceal my true interests and bite my tongue when something bothered me just so I could be seen as laid-back and intriguing. But now, when I replay moments from my freshman year in my head, every scene or emotion just seems insincere. The person in those moments is not actually me, but someone else. Someone that I don’t even know, with her fake laugh and her fake smile that aren’t mine. She is the one who went through her freshman year at the University of Michigan, not me, which is why my memories of the past school year don’t seem genuine or tangible.
Who I am in Ann Arbor is not who I am at home — a place where I don’t feel pressure to be someone I’m not. When I am in my hometown, I can allow myself to expose the parts of my being that I don’t want anyone else to see. I can lean back into my interests that I masked due to the fear of judgment, like my love for Game of Thrones or my passion for grandma-esque activities like knitting. I can embrace the intricacies of how I like to operate; I can stay in at night without forcing myself into extroversion to avoid falling behind. I can clean my room without feeling like I might be judged for being up-tight. I can relish in every part of myself that felt too personal, too me, to display to those I had surrounded myself with. Thus, being back in Indiana for the summer allowed me to settle into a personality that I hadn’t adorned in a long time. The genuineness of my true self wrapped around me like a comfortable embrace I never wanted to let go of. I know who I am in my hometown. I’m free to relax, to let my words flow openly out of my mouth without overthinking them and to laugh the way I always have. I know the roads like the back of my hand. I know all the restaurants. I know who to trust and who to turn away from. The familiarity coursed through my veins and rushed to my head, silencing all the uncertainty I had carried back from the University.
As I relaxed in the company of my childhood friends and ate ice cream with my sister while we watched the sunset from my car, I found it increasingly difficult to conjure up my life in Ann Arbor. At the beginning of summer, I took my fake college persona and put it in a storage box, where it sat all summer collecting dust. I easily forgot about it as I became engrossed in the rhythm of my summer routine. It was easy to forget my self-hatred from freshman year. It was easy to separate myself into two versions, to identify my obvious dual existence which encapsulates both my college persona and my true persona.
But just two weeks ago, I gathered all my things together to return to the University of Michigan for sophomore year. As I was sorting through my old dorm stuff, discerning what to bring and what to leave behind, I came across that dusty old box with my dusty old college version folded inside. When I took her out and slipped her on, I felt uncomfortable. Itchy. So unlike myself. The feeling made me want to vomit and scream and cry. She is suffocating and painful and not me. But wasn’t that the point? To not be myself, to let my insecurities and desperation ravage my insides until I withdrew from the real aspects of my personality? To pretend and pretend until I didn’t know who I was anymore? Of course she is uncomfortable. Of course she makes me want to vomit and scream and cry. She’s supposed to alter me.
As my lungs grew tight in the binding corset of my freshman being, I realized I had a choice. I could choose to pull on my college persona, forcing it to mold to my skin even though it clearly does not fit. I could choose to pretend, for the second time, in the hopes that I might form more connections and fill the void I so desperately wish to close. I could choose to hide myself once again, never allowing my actual personality to see the sun until I return to the safe confines of my childhood bedroom. I could be a fake person and live a fake life and look back on memories that feel fake — because they are.
Or, I could put my college personality back in her storage box and leave her there with old stuffed animals and random trinkets — tokens of my past that will stay in my room and never leave. I could go to Michigan with a fresh start and attempt to make connections that truly fulfill me, even if it takes some time. I could live authentically as myself and embrace the aspects of my personality that I find unworthy or uncool without needing anyone else’s validation. I could allow myself to breathe in a persona that truly fits, a persona that does not leave lasting impressions in my skin, but instead wraps me in warmth and comfort the way it’s supposed to. I could choose to end my dual existence once and for all.
Kneeling in my closet, the choice became obvious: I needed to put away that fake college persona once and for all. I needed to start living truly and wholly. I knew that, in the end, this decision would break my cycle of insecurity and self-loathing. I knew that this was right for me.
And yet, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I stared at the box, unable to put it back on the shelf and walk away. There would always be doubt plaguing my mind: What if people hate the real me? What if I form no real relationships? What if I am still miserable and unhappy? The presence of that fake personality, the same one that makes me want to vomit and scream and cry when I try it on, somehow offers me a tiny bit of comfort. I managed to wear it for an entire school year, and I survived. So maybe it is worth it to continue to pretend to be someone I’m not, to invent and wear this entirely new persona, in an effort to find comfort in the unknown. I’ll wear a shield to avoid the upset caused by others not accepting the garments that lie beneath.
But, finally, I imagined myself looking in the mirror every single day and having to see a complete stranger stare back at me. I may be able to hide who I am to the world, but I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to hide who I am to myself. Slowly but surely, I placed that box back on the shelf, turned around and shut the door. I am terrified for this new semester, but I am more terrified of losing myself. As daunting as it is, it is time to live as myself, and only myself, this year. It is time to end my dual existence.
Statement Columnist Ananya Gera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.