I Am This: The Importance of Labels to Identity

This post originally appeared on my Tumblr in 2014. It has been updated and edited for clarity.

For most of my life I have been trying to fit some label or another, and after a while I simply gave up labels altogether and refused to call myself anything but “me”. While I am still “me”, I’ve done some reflection on the labels that I have been slowly claiming over the past few years, and their importance.

I’m sure that my rebellion against labels had something to do with my general rebellion against basically everything in my teenage and young adult years. Some of it had to do with not feeling comfortable with the labels that other people had ascribed to me. I also felt like I didn’t fit the labels I had chosen, either because they were who I thought I wanted to or was expected to be. I tried out labels like I tried on new clothes, but the harder I tried to fit into something the more awkward I became. This led to all sorts of crazy things, but most notably the constant feelings of isolation, “otherness”, and self-loathing. Once I decided that labels were for chumps, I gradually stopped trying to fit a mold and just didn’t give things a whole lot of thought. This led to a freedom of sorts; I knew who I wasn’t, but I didn’t know who I was. The lack of self-awareness that I embraced caused a tonne of drama in my life and relationships.

These periods of chaos in my life also had other major contributing factors – such as undiagnosed mental illness and addiction issues. But even though I flitted about claiming to be eschewing labels, there were still a few that I used at times as either crutches or weapons.

For example, one of those was “lesbian”. I came out to my parents as bi-sexual when I was 15 or 16 years old. That’s a story for another time, but the labels of my sexuality have often (always) played a huge role in how I approached my relationships with other people and myself. At some point after I moved out of my small town with its basically nonexistent LGBT community, I decided that I was going to be a lesbian. The contradiction of this label and my application of it to my behavior should have been pretty obvious to me, since I was still sleeping with men. Primarily I used it to keep new men at a distance when they showed interest in me. I said this to so many people that I eventually felt that I had to claim it as part of my identity. It was an imperfect fit, but was better than some of the labels I had tried on in the past. I had known for years that I was attracted to women. At some point during this time, I bought into the myth that bisexuals are just confused and that I had to pick a gender to be attractive to me. This caused years of inner torment as I changed my label every other month, having an identity crisis of some sort every time.

When I entered a 12-step recovery fellowship for help with my addiction issues, I began to become self-aware again. For the first time that I could recall, I found that I fit a label without any effort. The fellowship that I’m a part of defines the label “addict” in very broad terms. This means that exactly what the label means can be a pretty personal thing, and everyone can define themselves for themselves. To me, this was a pretty revolutionary way of thinking about labels. Embracing this label gave me the freedom to look that the details of how the circumstances in my life and my state of being fit this category, instead of the other way around. It gave me the freedom to start my recovery. As a result of embracing this label that fit my criteria instead of trying to make myself fit the criteria of a label, I began to look at the other ways my life fit certain labels.

With the work I was doing on myself through the 12-step program, and undergoing an intensive program of psychiatric treatment, I was gaining self-awareness by strides, learning more about myself than ever before. I started to learn more about the things I was interested in, and as I found new terms for behaviours and ways of life, to look at how I fit into labels that I had never heard previously. I discovered a certain type of relief and freedom with each new label that I fit into because I no longer felt alone. There were other people like me, and the feelings of isolation and “otherness” that had been with me my whole life began to recede. Through the magic that is the internet and armed with my new labels as keywords, I began to find those other people like me. I found communities all over the world as well as groups in the city I live that welcomed me with open arms, saying “you’re just like us”, and “you’re welcome here”.

Please don’t misunderstand me when I talk about those feelings. I have AMAZING friends. I have friends in my life who put up with my shit and abuse when I was crazy and on drugs, sat with me while I was going through withdrawals on my couch because I couldn’t get into rehab, and remember my birthday, even when I don’t. Friends who love me and whom I love with all my heart. But there’s a subtle difference between empathy and understanding. There’s something alienating about being the only queer person in a group, the only addict/recovering addict in a group, the only anything in a group that can create those feelings of isolation to well up inside a person. And I’m not conceited enough to think that I’m the only one this happens to. The differences in our lives that make us unique and interesting can be the same ones that turn us into outcasts. In my ragtag group of friends, most of us are misfits in some way or another. We love in other not in spite of, but because of our differences.

The understanding that comes from similarities, however, can be pretty refreshing. Especially if those similarities are outside the accepted norms of “mainstream” society. By that, I mean that while there have been many improvements in the ways different groups of people are portrayed in the media, the toxic stereotypes, inaccuracies, or invisibilities that persist in movies, video games, books, etc. can have a large impact on emotional and mental health. It may not be the blatant bullying of my teenage years, but it can be frustrating and lonely. The importance of labels then, in my experience, is less about trying to fit a certain mold or conform to certain expectations, but as a protection against those very expectations and molds that I don’t fit. They are keywords that I can use to find other people like me, lifeline that I can use to find another person hurting in the darkness, so that I can tell them “you are not alone”.

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