Sometimes I feel like I’m cast as a “strong female supporting character” in someone else’s life. Other times, I’m the “crazy lady”. The third area I find myself in is as the wild and crazy friend who likes herself too much or is begging for attention. The roles have rules and wardrobe that aligns with my presentation. Still, presentation isn’t personhood.
We are all so many senseless things mapped onto one being. The gaping smiles and shenanigans are me. Confidence so big that the whole nation can’t hold it? That’s me too. I am also the woman in this picture from 2 months ago— brain incapacitated by a hypervigilant PTSD episode. These moments are infrequent, but they happen. It’s not glamorous. It’s not inspiring. A lot of people don’t buy that my brain does this. They think I’m faking. I don’t know if Meryl Streep could fake this. It’s excruciating, and still, it’s a datapoint. This is where the casting director grows giddy at adding, “inspiring” to me if they’re feeling generous or “unstable liability” in another direction.
If the first, an inspiring female character, one who can take it all on and provide emotionally intelligent feedback should have her whole life together? Please see picture #2 for a view of my couch at present. I’m 28 and still have acne. It takes me approximately 8 snoozes of an alarm before I wake up. And the moments or things I’m sometimes (flatteringly) called inspiring for can also cause me to turn moods suddenly. I’m not very castable then. When my unmet needs howl in embarrassing tones, I fall from the grace of strong womanhood. I’ve been a vending machine of emotional labor before, learned to be a parent before I learned to be a person. When the once boundaryless landscape of me is stripped of all resources, my presence becomes an exit sign. I’ve seen the softest parts of me sharpened into something against me when I misunderstood the arrangement. I’ve heard my confidence betrayed as the things I’ve survived were mangled into an exit sign for those who didn’t understand that the door was open all along. The weaponizing isn’t always from malice—often, it’s because if I’m not a character, then neither are they, and what does that mean for the way they think about themselves?
Category one, I don’t want to be called strong or brave or resilient as much as I want to be called my own name.
For the “mad woman” route, the one where my competency is critiqued, I have only my track record to offer: I graduated magna cum laude with my bachelors in 2 majors in 4 years while working 3-4 jobs with undiagnosed PTSD and an eating disorder. I repeated academic success (minus ED) with my masters while working full time, applying to law school, and surviving a global pandemic. To date, I haven’t received accommodations for my disabilities in receiving those honors (should have tbh). I purchased and paid off 2 cars by 26. I delivered a TED talk at 21. I’ve negotiated my salaries and paid for trips abroad beginning at 19 on my own. These feats intermingle with PTSD (trauma found me early), anxiety, eating disorders, family emergencies, more trauma, and self-harm. I lacked the luxury of pause until my late twenties. So, these achievements and events run alongside all the aspects that make me crazy. My account doesn’t exist for your administration or your pity. I’m saying them to challenge the notion that mental illness—even at severe forms— is the entirety of someone. I’m also challenging notions that people struggling should have to do all of that. In many ways, I felt that I had to present as hypercompentent so I’d be worthy of respect. All that taught me is that crazy is often the name affixed to those surviving who don’t compel our sympathy.
Third, there’s the vain, iconaclastic millennial desperate for attention or provocation—not sure which since I’m not the casting director. It’s a lucky thing that Im constitutionally incapable of betraying myself. I’d rather confuse other people than constrict me into a simpler self. This is especially true as a queer person. Because I’m not fully gay nor straight. I can’t divide my attraction into percentages because it changes all the time. All I can say that I decided that I’d rather be whole and complicated than amputate the curiousity I felt to make sense. I am outgoing, outrageous even. My sense of style shouts in colors, textures, and things I was once advised wouldn’t look good on my body type. I love myself loudly, and I do the same for you. I will cheer you on at everything, and it’s not so you like me, it’s so you know you have people rooting for you. Vanity is peculiar because none of us are devoid of it completely. I benefit from my whiteness, my straight sized body, my youth. But my appearance isn’t an instrinsic part of who I am. Somebody might argue my curly red hair is. But even without it, I’m still Marisa. I can’t be taken from myself nor dictated by another what I relish about my personhood. Do I seek attention? Probably. But here’s the thing: if you’re alive, you love attention. Forms vary but we are wired to crave the gentle acknowledgment of another living thing. Quit calling yourself needy for wanting that. I don’t. I am the person in my life with the greatest ability to ensure it’s fun, joy, and care so I do exactly that.
None of these isolated characters are me, but aspects align with who I am— both good and bad. Because I’m not inherently one or the other. None of us are. As Diane on Bojack Horseman said, “there is no deep down”. We are what we do and the kaleidoscope of truths we bring. But no external casting director gets to decide that—no matter if they’re family, friends, or a significant other.
It’s tempting to narrate another person into a character, a role, an escape, an answer, an enemy where there isn’t one. The anti-climatic truth is that everyone is a person—complete with the ordinary, contradictory, annoying, and spectacular aspects we uniquely offer. The common trait is vulnerability, fallibility, and co-reliance. To love people is to surrender the notion that they are perfect. Perfection is a performance incompatible with humanity. But to break and heal and allow witness and aid where shame tries to enter, that’s divine humanity. No role can accommodate for those things.
The opposite is also true. People I cannot stand, those I am diametrically opposed to, exist in a language I can’t interpret. That doesn’t make it wrong or broken. When I realized that my job in those interactions wasn’t vindication nor was it to like them, but just to acknowledge the person I witness—the iota I see— with the same respect that I want, life got easier. Conflict is a wise and profoundly uncomfortable teacher once I climb over my ego.
We can’t curate people the way movies and plays do characters. We try, but people aren’t beholden to the narrative only we know. I’ve stared into steely lenses hellbent only on seeing my weaknesses, and their frustration when their vindication is half-hearted at best. Like they came to a witch burning seeking a monster, and all they find is Marisa. I’m no picnic, but I’m also not a bonfire. I’ve sat across eyes hardened by the disappointment that I come without a cape but with health insurance, that I cannot be fractioned into just the airy, bubbly parts. I love that, too, but I also love and honor where I’m fragile, hurt, and human. I place where I’m more person than poetry before bare eyes instead of a spotlight— close enough to touch so you know I’m real.