None of this proved too onerous; in fact, it felt gratifying. I had spent years diminishing myself, wanting to remain invisible in the shadow of my father’s death. Now here I was — unabashedly making myself visible, claiming my right to belong. Rather than going the predictable route of choosing a name on my mother’s side of the family, I wanted to curate my new name, take ownership of it. After browsing countless name databases on the internet, I happened upon Ryan, drawn to its simplicity, its cadence, the way its two syllables matched those of my first name. It was perfect. The day Ryan officially became mine — Jan. 2, 2019 — felt like a fresh start: A new identity would untether me from my father’s death, the loneliness, the fear that I would never love myself.
It didn’t work, at least not at first. Not long after my name change, I fell into a deep depression, the kind that makes menial tasks — getting out of bed, taking a shower — seem like tremendous feats. I expected the name change to elicit instant happiness: voilà, a newly transformed, confident person worthy of love and respect. Instead, years of self-recrimination came rushing back: I couldn’t keep my father alive. I wasn’t enough. I was an impostor, hiding behind the veneer of a new name. Because something as extreme as changing my identity failed to bring resolution, I felt like a lost cause, fixed in my failures and worthlessness.
But over time, as the name’s novelty wore off, I settled into the mundanity of a name’s just being a name. When I focused less on the name change itself, and all I thought it would bring me, I was able to give myself credit for having the courage to craft my own identity.
In the United States, a person can assume a new name “at will,” meaning by simply using the name in public. (The rigmarole comes with receiving new IDs from government agencies, which require legal documentation of a name change.) Though the practice bears an unmerited stigma — as if inherited characteristics are sacred, untouchable — a name change reminds us that identities are fluid, able to change at will. And beyond the name, the process of becoming the person we want to be, and living in that skin, shows us that we are the proprietors of our image, our choices.
Not everyone needs to undergo such dramatic transformation, of course. But for some of us, shedding the old is less an act of vanity than of self-respect. It was a weight I long carried, my father’s choice to end his life, to leave his only daughter without so much as a fragment of a memory. But my choice, to start a new life, under a new identity, could serve as a corrective to his. It could be my way, finally, of saying goodbye. Changing my name, reconciling the past with the present, made me realize that a love I once thought elusive — a forgiving, internal love — was already there, manifesting itself, unknown to me, when I needed guidance. It was, and is, my protector.