#iamsubject project – Labels


by Carly Dee

When I was a small, chubby blonde girl, I was told I could be anything that I wanted to be. After all the prime-minister was a woman, wasn’t she?

But as I grew and my white-blonde hair dulled to a dirty gold, I learned the true meaning of identity. It was more to do with being what you were told. I collected labels like they were stickers from Panini.

I grew up in social housing in the inner-city, so the ‘underprivileged’ label was applied to me. I excelled in school so I was ‘Clever’, but kept to myself because I was ‘Shy’. As the years went on and I adapted, many more labels were applied. I liked dark clothes, make-up and heavy bands. I was a ‘Goff’ (as it is pronounced in south London) a ‘Grunger’, a ‘Freak’. All the while I was stunned by a lack of self-esteem. And we are all products of our environment aren’t we?

I was gently kicked out of the nest by an increasingly exasperated mother when I was aged eighteen. This was the point that I was supposed to realise what being myself would mean. I would fly the nest and create my own home and collecting experiences and challenges like twigs – building the foundations of what my future life should be.

But life doesn’t always work like that.

I fell in love.

And boy, did I fall hard. I met a man who was nice to me, who liked me despite my labels. Or because of them. He was from Essex, he had a big family, he soon became everything to me. He proposed after two months, and moved in after six. During this whirlwind romance I became a ‘we’.

We lived in a shared house, with friends. And after a while we decided to start our own home. We got married and honeymooned in Southend.

By twenty-two I was a Daughter, a She, a Wife and a We.

I did what I thought was expected of me. But life doesn’t come with instructions sadly. So I tried. And I tried my best. But I always fell short of my high expectations and always wanted more than my current situation.

I hit the bottle.

And boy, did I hit it hard. At the start I drank to have fun but I didn’t notice it creep up on me. It became my self-esteem and assured me that everything would be all right. It told me I was a good Wife, a good Daughter, a good She, a good We. It helped me sleep at night. I grew older and it increased its hold, a saccharine comfort blanket, a welcome break from reality. And slowly, slowly it wrapped itself tighter around me, and it got so tight that I could no longer breathe.

I hit the bottom.

And I was too battle-bruised to feel it hurt. I clawed my way back to unsteady feet and began to see what was around me. I felt exposed. It was scary. I was afraid of the mirror because when I looked into it, I saw the first glimpses of Me.

My husband began to see the woman I should have grown up to be, but by then it was too late and we had grown apart. Try as we might, We couldn’t cope with Me.
We got divorced. Aged twenty-eight my labels read: ‘Recovering Alcoholic Divorcee’.

I was devastated.

Not just by what happened, but by the labels. Sticks and stones break bones, but words cut deep. I spent my life accepting whatever label was given to me and then acting it out accordingly. But to me this label meant admitting defeat. While the embers of my past life were smouldering beneath my burnt feet, I was questioning semantics. This label wasn’t for me, it had to be for someone else surely?

I felt like nothing. I had no security. What would I do now I wasn’t a Wife, what would I do now I wasn’t a We?

I dug deep.

The labels were like cotton wool, they wrapped themselves around me. Sometimes that cotton wool was warm and safe and sometimes it smothered me, strapping down my wings so tight that I forgot that I had them.

I forgot that I could fly.

After months of being so hungry I saw stars, I started to eat. I learned how to set boundaries, how to stand on my own two feet. I nurtured those first stirrings I had seen in the mirror of my personality. I had no choice. It took months but after a while the noise I heard was my own voice. I found pleasure in the small things in life, I learned to ask for help and most importantly – I learned how to do things myself. And it’s only been eight months since I became me, but I’m a work in progress and I’m growing steadily.


Diane DeBella

As a writer, teacher, and speaker Diane has spent over twenty years examining women’s issues. She is the author of the collective memoir *I Am Subject: Sharing Our Truths to Reclaim Our Selves*, and editor of the anthology *I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening*. As a long-time faculty member at the University of Colorado, she received the CU Women Who Make a Difference Award and the CU-LEAD Alliance Faculty Appreciation Award. Through her organization I Am Subject, Diane helps us understand how we—as women—are impacted by the society in which we live. By claiming ourselves as subjects of our own lives, we become empowered and also provide strong role models for other women and girls. In healing ourselves we help others—a beautiful way for women to create nurturing, supportive communities.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Anora McGaha

    Powerful piece Carly Dee. “I became a ‘We’.” Beautifully said.

  2. Mary Rowen

    Great essay, Carly Dee. I can relate to so much of it. Congratulations on becoming a “me!” We’re all works in progress!

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