When I was fourteen, I changed my name, and with it I changed my life.
It was the beginning of Year Eleven, the penultimate school year in Australia, and so there was an influx of new students who had transferred to take advantage of our senior program. One such student was introduced to me by my best friend, who was assigned to look after her.
‘This is Aziza’, she said to me, and then turning to the new girl ‘and this is…’
‘Allie’, I interrupted. ‘Hi, welcome!’.
There was a pause.
‘Right, yes. I decided I’m changing my name’.
And from then on, I was Allie. It didn’t happen overnight, but it happened very quickly. By the end of high school, all my teachers as well as my friends called me Allie, although it remained, legally, my middle name. My high school graduation certificate names me that way, as did my subsequent university enrolment. I even persuaded the Australian Taxation Office, that first year out of high school, that Allie was a legal alias and as such, I could be registered with them that way. This was the mid-nineties, and I suspect I wouldn’t be able to effect the change so easily now, but by 1996 all of my ID save for my expired passport and birth certificate were in that name. Nobody called me by my old name any more except family members I rarely saw.
Why did I do it? Well, it’s a family tradition of sorts; my mother also goes by her middle name, as does my maternal aunt. My late grandfather used an alias for his entire life. It’s apparently quite a common thing to do in Wales, which is where my maternal family come from, but I didn’t know that at the time. I just didn’t want to be me any more; I disliked the fact that Australians always misheard my original name, I remembered childhood teasing, and more and more, my name seemed to me to describe a person I wasn’t. My original name was mousy and serious. She wore glasses and looked at the ground, she stumbled over words and always wondered if people were laughing at her behind her back. People mocked her accent.
When I was Allie, I was sparky. I sat on tables to address a whole group of other students, and when I made jokes, people laughed. I made friends with the drama crowd. I had a gay best friend before having a gay best friend was a Thing. Allie, went to parties, she skipped classes, she talked with her hands and flirted with boys. When Allie walked into a room, a boyfriend later told me, everyone else perked up because the conversation was about to get interesting.
But that’s a very neat way of packaging what is, essentially, a coming-of-age story. It’s as compelling as the apocryphal scene in every teenage movie from the eighties ever made, whereby the plain, bespectacled heroine sheds her glasses and her braces and becomes the most popular girl in the school. Or the librarian trope which headlines this post: when her hair is let down, and her glasses are off, she’s beautiful. She’s been beautiful all along.
It’s compelling because at that age, we all feel as if we’re extraordinary underneath, but that the things that we labour under – our braces, our awkwardness, our family situations – are such a burden that people don’t see us, underneath. And there’s something to note in all of this; I’m talking about letting your true self come out from under a burden. Not changing who you essentially are. The geeky girl who loses her braces is probably still going to like Dr Who and bad puns and fall over her feet when she’s nervous. I still completely failed to notice when the right boys were interested in me and made a fool of myself with the wrong ones.
I was always, really, going to be the talkative, sparky person that I became when I became Allie. In those final two years of high school, my friendship group changed almost entirely, because I was finally able to choose my own subjects and so I came into contact with the other students who also dreamt of being a writer, a film producer, a historian or an actress. I was old enough to go to parties without parental supervision (not coincidentally, this is also the period where I first started getting drunk. But today, this is not a story about that) and to develop my own hobbies. It was, in short, the period in which most teenagers start to find out who they actually are. And I was always Allie, really, and I would have been even if I’d kept my name. But it was a very handy little catalyst, and it makes a handy little story to this day.
When you give up drinking (you were wondering how I was going to tie this in, right? Bloody hell, you were thinking, she’s eight paragraphs into her life story, has she forgotten that this is supposed to be a sobriety blog? No I have not! Here you go:), it’s easy to wonder who you’ll turn out to be. So many of us use alcohol to cover up our insecurities. Or to make ourselves into the ‘life of the party’ when actually we’re shy. Maybe we’re not really funny, or brave, or generous. And – just as scary – maybe the things that we’ve always secretly thought we would be if we stopped drinking aren’t true either. Maybe we won’t turn out to be naturally thin even without the wine. Maybe we actually are crap at painting. I’m absolutely positive that some of us use alcohol to sabotage what we could otherwise achieve, because it’s easier than trying our best and facing the possibility of failure.
It’s scary. What if you don’t turn out to be somebody you like? What if you’re shy, and awkward, and boring, and mediocre, and annoying, and you do that funny thing with your ear when you’re anxious that people might notice, and WHAT IF YOU SUCK? What do you do then? You have to LIVE with you, for goodness’ sake!
Look. I don’t know most of you. But I can, 100%, guarantee you that you are a better person without alcohol. Alcohol doesn’t make you funny, it makes you loud. Alcohol doesn’t make you charming, it makes you boring. You might have on your beer goggles when you refresh your lipstick after the sixth drink, but everybody else is seeing a flushed, puffy, red face and small eyes. And you might not be Renoir in sobriety, but your brush stroke technique is definitely going to tighten up.
Sobriety doesn’t change you. It uncovers who you are. Under the bun, the glasses – or, more accurately, the broken capillaries stippling your cheeks and the inappropriate jokes – you are the you that you are supposed to be.
And you are beautiful, Miss Jones.