The Looking Glass: Growing as I Go
"What do you do when you give so much of yourself to one label or identity that you forget about all the others?"
While working her way through academia, Katie Pothier unintentionally learned more about herself than she ever expected. Katie discusses her experience of having a false idea of her identity, losing it all, and eventually discovering her true self through the pursuit of a master's degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice Policy.
Growing as I Go
Written by Katie Pothier
identity [ ahy-den-ti-tee ]
- the state or fact of remaining the same one or ones, as under varying aspects or conditions;
- the condition of being oneself or itself, and not another;
- condition or character as to who a person or what a thing is; the qualities, beliefs, etc., that distinguish or identify a person or thing.
We often talk about identities and labels as though they are synonymous. As though one's identity is just a hodgepodge of labels, neatly picked by the individual to match their inner thoughts and feelings. Like life is a game of mad-libs or a choose-your-own-adventure – the possibilities are endless, but all easily defined. What if that's the last thing we really are: easily defined?
I was always an academically oriented kid. A teacher's pet, if you will. I flew through elementary and middle school with the highest grades – and let everyone know it. Learning came naturally to me, and I loved it. With my ease and natural talent, I never felt the need to develop any skills or interests outside of school. I was the geek, the nerd, the dork. Adults congratulated me for my intelligence and used me as a model for what other kids should have been doing. My ego was the size of Texas, more or less. My identity began and ended with the "smart kid" label.
When I began high school, that all changed. Suddenly, lessons were flying over my head, and I couldn't keep up. I was behind in my readings, my assignments were coming in late, and I had no one to blame but myself. I had no work ethic or time management skills because I was just naturally smart – right? My grades tanked. I had lost the one thing I was good at, and now I was nobody. I was trapped; I couldn't reach out for help because then my teachers would see me for what I was: a fraud. I wasn't smart. I had just managed to trick all the adults in my life into thinking I was. But if I wasn't smart, then who was I? What do you do when you give so much of yourself to one label or identity that you forget about all the others?
I realized that I needed to find something that motivated me to keep up with the demands of academia. I took every high school elective you could think of; all the sciences, creative writing, leadership, gym/athletics, art/music, you name it. Nothing stuck. I decided to try out a sociology elective as a last-ditch resort, and wouldn't you know – I fell in love! Learning about the fluidity of society and human nature got me thinking about the fluidity of my own self. I had spent so long putting myself in this specific box, the academic box, that I had completely neglected every other facet of my being. From this revelation, I made a decision – sociology was my steppingstone to a cohesive, holistic sense of self. I could use my lingering academic passions in university to set me on a path to success. Or so I thought.
First-year of my sociology undergrad passed, and I came out the other side incredibly depressed. I had fallen back into those same habits – trekking along at full speed towards academic burnout while ignoring the other pieces of my psyche. I felt friendless, isolated, and alone. My only joy came from education – learning about sociology kept me going, and then discovering topics like politics, gender, and crime sparked a passion in me that I couldn't shake. In learning about these emotionally charged topics, I became inspired to work on behalf of the underserved in the criminal justice system. I figured if I couldn't do right by my self, I could at least do right by those who need it most (which is a flawed perspective in and of itself, but we'll get there later). By my third year, I was committed to furthering my education through a master's degree, even though I most certainly did not have the grades to show for it. My depression had struck my motivation at the knees, and I was struggling just to pass my courses. But I knew what I wanted, and I knew how to get there, so I fought for it.
On my 23rd birthday (in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic), I received acceptance letters from both of the MA programs I had applied to. I thought this would be what I needed, that the pieces would fall together, and everything would make sense – but it didn't. Once again, I had put all my eggs into my academic basket and ignored the outside world. I fought, struggled, and worked to build myself up as an academic to the point where I had no idea who I was outside of school. This brought me to yet another crossroads: who am I, really? What do I stand for?
It was at this point, the summer before entering grad school, that I went through two major life changes. Number one: I was finally diagnosed with ADHD and Autism. I realized that the "natural affinity" I had for academics was a piece of my Autistic brain, and the struggle to maintain focus was a piece of my ADHD brain. Realizing that I was disabled shifted my entire perspective on how I approach school. I had to accept that I need accommodations and assistance from others rather than trying to fight through my disabilities in solitude. I wasn't incapable, lazy, or bad; my brain just works differently than most people. Connecting with these pieces of myself showed me that instead of being frustrated with my inability to do certain things, I can give more of myself to things that I am able to do. Since my diagnoses, I've come so far in developing outside interests and hobbies that don't involve school – my favourites at the moment are yoga, roller-skating, and plant care!
Number two: my partner/high school sweetheart came out to me as a trans woman. We had both struggled to find ourselves in adolescence and managed to grow through the struggle together. I had known subconsciously for a while that I was not fully heterosexual, but when you spend your entire adolescence/young adulthood in a straight-passing relationship, you don't tend to spend time theorizing or speculating about your sexual orientation. In any case, this revelation also turned my world on its axis. I had spent my entire undergraduate degree taking gender studies courses and had focused my graduate research on gendered violence, but I wasn't sure why. I knew that I felt a very specific sort of passion for this field, but I hadn't been able to address it head-on until this revelation. I thought that I was using my privilege to amplify voices that needed amplifying; I wasn't the one who needed amplification. My label, my identity, was the amplifier, not the amplified – except for when it wasn't.
Reckoning with the fact that I was part of multiple marginalized groups was a big deal. I would even argue that it was the missing piece I was trying to find. I spent so long fighting for others because I didn't think I was worthy of being fought for, but now I know that I am just as worthy and deserving of help as anyone else. These revelations pointed me to so many new, important, undefinable pieces of myself – I am disabled, I am queer, I am an academic; I'm also a non-racialized settler, a person of average socio-economic status, a person with privilege. To try to work these labels out in an additive categorical way only serves to chip away at and isolate the pieces of myself as a whole.
Working with Dr. Deborah Stienstra at the Live Work Well Research Centre has been instrumental for me when it comes to working out my sense of self. We've been working alongside an advisory committee of Indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people with disabilities – the knowledge I have gained from this project, not only about the material but also about myself, is astounding. Seeing the strength and resilience that our advisory committee possesses has shown me that if they can push through struggles with identity and the self, I most certainly can as well. These individuals make up such a beautiful, diverse community, and I have the privilege to say that I am a part of it. I can be both the amplifier and the amplified in different contexts and know that neither of those labels discounts the other. My identity does not need to fit neatly into a box; I can be any number of labels to any number of people at any given time. Each of those versions of myself come together in a beautiful kaleidoscope that makes up my being. A beautiful work in progress.