Forget everything I said about identity disturbance. Well, not everything. But allow me to reframe what I said.
Earlier this year, I wrote that I think I have identity disturbance. That may or may not be true (and my therapist, on principle, refuses to slap a diagnosis on me). Regardless of whether I “really” have a disturbed identity, the point is that I struggle to feel “like myself.” I feel like my entire being is made up of question marks, distortions and confusion. Am I an extrovert, introvert, or ambivert? Am I talkative or quiet? Am I domineering or submissive? Adventurous or cautious? I have no idea. When I try to assess myself as a nuanced human being, a strange feeling of shame pops up and blocks me from acknowledging my own unique personality. It feels as though I do not have permission (from whom?) to identify myself on my own terms. As a consequence, I depend heavily on external input to figure out who I am and whether my behavior is socially acceptable. Obviously, this has made me quite appealing to the likes of cult leaders.
After having this revelation back in June, I thought that I was hopelessly identity-less. I feared that I was doomed to feel confused and have excruciating low self-esteem for the rest of my life.
But then I visited Arizona.
I’ve been privileged to travel a little more than the average person, both within the U.S. and outside of it. I’ve seen many cultures, many climates, many creeds. But no place has felt more like home to me, than Arizona.
Before visiting the state, I had been inexplicably obsessed with AZ for a full year. I would Google it constantly. I would interview everyone I knew who’d been there. I literally had dreams about it, and I rarely even remember my dreams. Logically, it made no sense that I’d be attracted to Arizona with such fervor. I had always heard it was an overtly racist state. I had also heard that it lacked diversity, youth and excitement. Normally, such stereotypes would turn me away. But not this time. Some wiser side of myself — my intuition, you could say — knew that there was something in store for me there.
And boy oh boy, was that hunch correct! More on that later. But first, let’s talk shit about New York City.
New York City.
This place has eaten me alive. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve literally cried over how miserable I am here, or how many people here have not only been mean, but have gone out of their way to sabotage my success. I came to this city as a bright, bubbly, smiley young woman, and I cannot even recognize my fucking self anymore. I don’t make eye contact. I keep my mouth shut as not to incite anyone’s wrath. I don’t go outside unless I have to. I don’t dress up anymore because of the aggressive street harassment from men. I hardly have a social life here, and it’s not for lack of trying! My entire existence now, is dedicated to conserving energy. Whether I’m shielding myself from the sensory stimulation (flashing lights, traffic noise, crowded transit) or shielding myself from the attitude of the locals, I am always in a shell these days.
I, hate, this, place, so, much. Nowhere else in the world have I encountered so many nasty, arrogant, impatient, spiteful, rude and self-absorbed people. Nor have I had this many consistently ugly encounters with strangers anywhere else. The cashiers are rude, the subway riders are rude, the pedestrians are rude… The stereotypes are true. New Yorkers can deny it all they want, but… it’s hard to see the forest through the trees.
You know how cults are sometimes called “high demand groups”? Well, I think New York City, for me anyway, is a high demand culture.
I am not saying New York City is a cult. Chill out and don’t put words in my mouth. 😉 What I’m saying is that I find the culture and expectations of this city to be soul-damaging.
It is not normal to have almost zero nature around you. It is not normal to be deprived of restorative sleep by light pollution and noise. It is not normal to be so anxious, socially isolated, and misanthropic. It is not normal to regard everyone around you as a potential threat. It’s not normal for strangers to live packed around and on top of each other. It is not normal to be so hyper-stimulated with artificial input like neon lights and trains grinding on subway tracks.
This city triggers so many survival mechanisms that it’s hard to be fully human here. NYC breeds not only contempt for humanity, but deep insecurities that manifest as rudeness and competitiveness. In my heart of hearts, I do not believe New York City is the ideal place to build healthy communities from the ground up. I have seen too many community projects fail in NYC because they all found themselves forced to corporatize and acclimate to this business-first-humanity-later culture. So many people come here with good intentions, and leave broken-hearted and even broken-minded.
I’ve always been keenly aware of how a group of people, such as a cult, can harm your mind. But somehow I didn’t connect the dots that a culture can do the same thing, just in a more insidious way, because you can’t point to a specific person as the source of the pain.
So I am giving myself permission to say what I’ve been discouraged from saying for the past 5 years of being involved in NYC. This place hurts. It’s dirty, smelly, overly priced, loud, obnoxious, self-aggrandizing, cutthroat, and yes, the people here really are that mean. Even the ones who seem friendly don’t really know how to connect with people. I hate it here. I’ve spent years internalizing the message that “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” which implies that anyone who can’t make it here is flawed or weak in some way. Well you know what? I can’t make it here. I’ve tried to make it work, but now I’m tired of wasting my energy. But that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me. I’m tired of modifying myself to earn the approval of this amorphous, self-important shit hole. I’m finished with seeking validation from a culture for whom no achievement will ever be good enough. I’m done blaming myself for how I get (mis)treated here. Done.
“Healthy communities.” Hmmm…
It’s something I’ve had to ponder in the wake of every cult/movement I’ve been part of. What makes a community, a healthy one? One might think that independence is the opposite of cultism/hivemind/groupthink, but I don’t think that’s true. In fact, I think you’re more likely to be drawn to cults if you try to be completely self-sufficient. We are social animals. There is a time for independence, and there is a time for connecting with others. The goal is to balance the two: time for self, and time for others. It can be done. I have been privileged to experience this beautiful balance in a few contexts throughout my life. One day I’ll write a post just about those experiences.
For now, I will just say that concepts like New York City — well, any industrial and highly populated city — are so heinously inhumane as to be borderline dystopian. It was a dreadful mistake on my part to move to NYC immediately after Arachne (my one-on-one cult leader) cut contact with me and left me to navigate the post-cult trauma alone. This is not a place for healing. Not even close. As someone who struggles to assert my identity and feel a stable sense of Self, I can’t say there’s any place or group in the world that can make me better. But I can say that New York City is certainly making me worse.
In contrast, the people in AZ were unbelievably sweet and friendly. From talking with the neighbors where we were staying, there was a clear sense of community. I didn’t sense that anybody was cutthroat or competitive. In fact, quite the opposite: I got the sense that people there were very happy to support one another, not sabotage them. Feeling safer and more supported, I found myself dressing to express my personality, which I had stopped doing because of the catcalling in NYC. I found myself making eye contact, smiling, holding conversations with strangers. I found myself happy and hopeful about the future. I felt confident. I felt like myself.
There is SO MUCH I’m withholding about my trip to Arizona. Maybe one day I’ll tell the full story, maybe I won’t. Let’s just keep this post relevant to this blog’s overarching topic (cultism).
Visiting Arizona taught me a LOT of things, but particularly these two things:
- Your environment plays a major role in your healing. You might think you can cope with industrious noise on a daily basis, but maybe you really can’t. And that’s okay!
- There is such a thing as a healthy, supportive community — yes, people who love people do exist!
- If you’re a person who struggles with having a stable sense of identity, don’t underestimate the influence of your culture on how you perceive yourself!
Now, remember how I said I have difficulty seeing myself any older than 23 years old?
Yeah, as it turns out, I actually can see myself aging in Arizona. In fact, it’s the only place I can easily imagine myself being 30, 40, 50, 60 years old. I suppose that’s my Wiser Self’s way of telling me that I won’t live much longer… in New York. This city is, quite literally, killing me.
So as a 24th birthday gift to myself, I am going to move to Arizona.
It defies all logic to think of moving deeper into the country instead of away from it, especially now that Trump is our President-Elect. But like I said, there are plenty of details I’m not sharing. Trust me when I say, everything in me knows I am supposed to be there. In fact, you could say I’ve been guided there by the Universe itself. That’s all I’ll reveal for now. The rest will be said when the time is right.
I sincerely feel like I had a glimpse of my Self in Arizona. After all this concern about having no identity, my hope has been restored that I do, in fact, have a Self. I am friendly, courageous, creative and driven to create healthy communities. And I am ready to be nurtured out of my shell.