I like to think that my strength lies in my authenticity, but it hasn't always been that way.

In high school, I remember being complimented on my "heightened moral compass" and my integrity which, honestly, didn't make a lick of sense to me. Raised Christian, I went through a crisis of faith during my freshman year that ultimately led to leaving my church. In stark contrast to my conservative upbringing, my junior year seemed pretty amoral.

At the time, I was regularly breaking curfew to go chainsmoke cigarettes while trespassing on playgrounds with a yet-to-be-convicted felon instead of doing homework.  I often went to school stoned and would skip out on classes to go eat at Taco Bell. Evenings not spent with my criminally-inclined boyfriend (of sorts) were spent illegally camping in the forest with my friends, who were dabbling in stronger and stronger drugs. I once spent three days straight at a house party, cross-faded out of my mind. I slept with two boys a few hours apart in the same bed and made out with a third while his girlfriend was in the backyard. (To be fair, I didn't realize he had a girlfriend until afterward, when he introduced me to her. I'm not entirely the worst... only mostly the worst.) I didn't see any evidence of a "heightened moral compass" and I certainly didn't see any evidence of integrity. I did see a growing heap of terrible decisions, made mostly in an attempt to outrun the negative thoughts I carried with me everywhere. The worst part was that I was aware, the entire time, and continued to make terrible decisions anyway. 

The house party actually served as the catalyst for me to start making more conscious decisions. After three days of Sparks, Joose, and mac and cheese made with only butter because the milk had spoiled, I was ready to go home. Discovering I had made out with someone who was in a relationship was sobering - I'd unintentionally crossed a line, just because I was inebriated. I'd also been labeled the party slut, which unsettled me.

A friend offered to drive me home and I accepted. It was late at night and we were driving through some dark curves. She kept swerving and looking down at her phone and the radio, which made me incredibly uncomfortable. She jerked the wheel whenever oncoming traffic passed her and then suddenly announced that she was too drunk.

Drunk?! I remember yelling at her. Apparently, she'd taken shots with the guys before getting behind the wheel. I'd had no idea. It was yet another of my lines crossed - despite my bad decisions, I never wanted to climb into a car with a drunk driver. My suicidal thoughts hadn't ever included volunteering myself for a car accident. What little remained of my high dissipated and I was left rooted in adrenaline-spiked fear. Luckily, the remainder of the ride was uneventful. I made it home and promptly never spoke to the driver again.

I spent a long time thinking about those few days and all the harm that could have happened. I began cutting ties with the people who were pulling me in bad directions. I quit smoking and joined Big Brothers Big Sisters as a mentor. I spent a lot of my 17th year atoning for all the shit I'd managed to get up to in my 16th year, and practicing making intentional choices instead of impulsive ones.

And that's where the moral compass thing comes in. There was a nebulous group of about 20 kids who made up that "bad" group of friends. I looked them up; of the 15 I could find, it seemed like only 3 were doing well. That criminally-inclined sorta-boyfriend was convicted of felonies in 2015 and 2016, to no surprise. The drunk driver disappeared for several years and resurfaced several states away. Whatever it was that made me snap back into "myself" - the version of me that I recognize - I don't think it was common. If it was, I think more of us would have thrown off the bad shit and moved on. And possessing a moral compass doesn't necessarily mean you do the right thing. It's more that you have a strong sense of what right and wrong is. Free will still stands. Sometimes, bad decisions happen. But that moral compass will continue to remind you where true north is.

I've worked hard to cultivate this confident, happy, self-possessed version of me. I'm not always likable, but I'm always me. I like to think that my authenticity sets me apart as a friend and and as an artist. 

So... What have you worked to cultivate in yourself? 

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