Once upon a time I was an aimless girl who twisted herself into a little pretzel to win over a man. He was a decent man, with his own complexes and flaws, who led me down the primrose path into the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Five years later, and a whole lot smarter, I returned to the United States with two young children to start life over. My memoir of this time, The Lost Girl’s Guide to Iran, is nearing completion.
As with any episode in life you can write a whole book about, I learned a great many lessons.
- Getting married is not a foolproof plan for getting what we want.
- If we don't have dreams of our own, we'll end up living dream of someone else.
- When we deny the truth of who we are, we end up in places like…well, Iran.
But mostly, I learned that we can’t skip the hard stuff—developing inner knowledge, independence, facing the challenges of life for a personal dream, encountering pain—we can only put it off.
There are times in our lives where we all struggle with identity. For me, the last years of college and entry into the workforce were probably the worst. Because I couldn’t see the next steps ahead of me, only a gaping abyss.
From the outside I looked like I had it going on— reasonably good-looking, educated, lots of friends— but on the inside, things were pretty grim. I was a floater, unsure of my own opinions or goals, an imitation adult who was still looking for a Daddy to show me the way.
This, of course, is the part where the boyfriend comes in. An Iranian ten years my senior who’d been my chemistry T.A. Unlike me, he always seemed to know exactly where to go, what to do. He was so sure of himself. So comfortable in his own skin, so confident in his opinions, so unapologetic for who he was. I saw his essence as the perfect corrective to my insecurity and lack of direction.
Instead of taking a stab at an adult life after I graduated—getting my own apartment, building a career, developing some satisfying hobbies—I turned my obsessive focus on him. I spent every waking moment trying to please him. I became someone I was not. I flushed my birth control pills down the toilet and got pregnant because I didn’t think I had what it took to solidify the relationship organically. Beyond attachment to my man, I hadn’t the slightest idea who I was.
We moved to Iran.
We—no surprises here— got divorced.
Finding an identity is tough. I know women who’ve stayed in bad marriages, and this includes me, because the idea of going out on one’s own, of finding the right path (as if there’s only one), of having no one else to blame when you come up short, feels far more uncomfortable. The journey required looks way too daunting.
But. At some point we have to stop running away from our selves. We have to figure out who we are, and what we want.
During my 30’s, I found the outline of myself very, very slowly. It started with, ironically, running. One mile at first, then marathons. For the first time in my life, I felt strong and confident. I realized that one step at a time was all that was needed. That I didn’t have to know how I would do it, I just needed to start.
I bought my first place–a condo. I discovered I could pay the mortgage, and feed the kids. I remembered how much I liked writing in high school, long before I got hooked on men, and I registered for a course. Three years and a lot of miles later, I earned a writing degree from Harvard.
Here’s what I want to share with you, at the age of 49:
We can postpone developing an identity—complete with dreams and goals. We can put off risking ourselves out there in the great big world. But, we can’t escape it for good. Sometimes we tiptoe forward on our own accord; sometimes life gives us a helpful boot. Unfortunately, happiness, a sense of self, and self-esteem must be won the old fashioned way: it must be earned.
Ann Sheybani is a writer, speaker, adventure guide and coach. She helps women who’ve lost their groove uncover their passions, and pursue exciting new goals that re-ignite their lives. Her blog can be found at www.annsheybani.com.