Pseudonyms and Milk Carton Faces

In The Face on the Milk Carton by Caroline B. Cooney, Janie recognizes her own baby photo on the back of a milk carton (the pre-internet version of an AMBER alert). The resulting drama stretches through a total of five books and was even adapted into a made-for-tv movie.

The part that stuck with me happens early in the story. Janie is in English class, finishing an essay. She writes her name at the top of the page but the way it looks on paper is sooo boring. She'd already tried sexing up her name last year from Jane Johnson to Jayne Johnstone.

Now she took the "h" out of Johnston and added a second "y" to Jayne.

Jayyne Jonstone. It looked like the name you would have if you designed sequined gowns for a living, or pointed to prizes on television quiz shows.

Later on, her English teacher hands back the corrected essay.

At the top of the page he had circled Jayyne Jonstone, adding, "Janie, you having an identity crisis?"

I burst out laughing at this point. Every single time. 

Like Janie, I hated my name. I thought it was sooo boring. It never felt right, like I was an amnesiac trying on a name.

In high school, Susan turned into Susyn then into Suzzyna. Teenage insecurity and awkwardness donned a figurative cloak made of y's and z's. I'd watched enough teen movies to believe in the magic of makeovers. Suzzyna could dazzle the world into submission. She was the superstar my parents pushed me to be — unafraid, confident, beautiful, successful.

I wore her cloak for a very long time. And when Suzzyna wasn't bright enough, I created other personas based off of people I admire. I eventually ended up with so many that I could even choose which one to put on, like costumes hanging on a rack.

Doors turned into stage curtains. Whenever I was about to walk into a room, it felt like I was waiting in the wings, counting down my entrance. One deep breath to suppress my fears then I'd step out into the spotlight.

Afterward, once the curtains lowered and I was safely back in the wings, I could never remember what happened on stage. All I had to go by was audience reaction. Applause told me I did something right; laughter meant it all went wrong.

Living this way was stressful but it didn't seem too bad. I graduated, got married, started a career, but after having worn so many masks this long, I couldn't remember what I looked like.

When I tried to be myself, anxiety cut through my skin, flaying away composure to expose raw panic. I felt like a fraud and a failure. I was trying to make sense of my naked body when I'd only ever seen the photoshopped version. I'd been taught to judge myself by how well I blended into the glossy pages of a superficial world.

It wasn't until recently that I learned those masks were a coping mechanism. What I'd thought was teenage insecurity and awkwardness turned out to be crippling social anxiety, complete with selective mutism and sensory processing issues. 

Whenever environments or situations became too much to handle, stepping into a different persona dialed down the panic. Adding y's and z's into my name helped me feel just safe enough so I wouldn't shut down. 

Looking back now, I see how this anxiety has affected my writing. I could only ever write under pseudonyms — each one tossed aside as soon as I felt unsure. I experimented with voices and styles, trying to mould myself into someone I thought I should be. And because I worried what others thought, I did what I'd always done — disappear into yet another persona. The unfortunate result? All the things I had to say vanished too.

Which brings me to the point of this entry.

I dug up some old blog posts that had been published under pseudonyms. They've been migrated to this site because I want to start writing under my own name. No more personas. No more masks. (A brand new site design marks this occasion.) I may be afraid of so many things, but I know now that I am also confident, beautiful, and successful. I've always been. All I needed was to recognize the face on the milk carton — the missing me that I've only just found.