When I was 11 years old my family moved to the country with a few acres of land, some sheep, a pony, and a shed full of rabbits. My parents bought a used mobile home from a repo lot and stuck it on our little piece of property in the middle of nowhere in a clearing I’d helped create with my hatchet (or tried anyway). My room was at the far end of the house away from everyone, with a big picture window looking out at a tall evergreen tree. The tree looked menacing at night, and I would lay in my bed awake watching the tree to make sure it stayed in its place and didn’t come creeping through my window.
My mom was happy to encourage my independence, and I had complete freedom to roam for hours with my dog in the woods. I’d frequently go for six or seven hours without seeing another human being. That suited me fine, I appreciated the peace and quiet and the time to be inside my own head. I would make up all sorts of new worlds in my mind, always fashioning myself into a heroic loner who cared for the world from the shadows. In my imaginary universes, I had cropped wavy hair and wore a deep green cape. My name would change depending on the world I was creating that day, but I remember some of them. Cedar. Fern. Juniper. Arden.
After a year or so of being afraid of the evergreen tree by my window, I decided to climb it during the light of day when it seemed less threatening. I sat in the top of the 20 foot tree and felt the way it would bend in the wind with my weight, and soaked in the sunlight and the trees around me. I started bringing books up into the tree until it got too cold to sit in the wind, so I built a survival shelter on the ground a few hundred feet into the woods and covered the ground with evergreen branches to be my bed. When I was back in my actual bed that night, the tree didn’t seem menacing anymore. I had found a sort of connection with the tree now and it felt protective and sheltering. I slept better for the next year or so that we lived in that home, under the watchful eye of the tree I had decided was a friend.
At 17 I was no longer creating mystical worlds in my imagination, but I was still building tree shelters and teaching survival craft to children at summer camp. At 21 I had decided sleeping outdoors was no longer enjoyable as more EDS symptoms appeared and comfort was a higher priority, but I still filled my home with plants and created a different sort of imaginary world – an online one. I was newly married and pregnant, and feeling awkward and strange in my own body. I didn’t have any friends around, but I found them online in pregnancy and parenting groups. All my accounts were under the name Arden – it wasn’t a conscious choice for privacy or any other reason, I just did it naturally without thinking. I made close friends and talked to them daily for months. When my daughter was born, I met up with a few of them in the city for baby playdates. The parents called me Arden, and it never occurred to me to correct them. 18 months later, one of the women in the parenting group saw my picture with my birth name. She wrote a dramatic thread “outing” me as a fake and telling everyone how creepy it was that I’d used a fake name, but half the parents that used the platform went only by screen names anyway. I had never considered the idea that I was lying by using the name Arden, it felt like me and no one had ever asked if it was my legal name. I was mortified and I left the parenting group immediately, moving back into isolation as I let go of the only social support structure in my life instantly and completely.
At 26, I had finally created a new online world around me of birth workers and activists, autistic friends and college professors, queer and transgender folks. For the first time in my life, I felt safe expressing my innermost thoughts about gender and identity with anyone other than my partner. I confided in a few friends and found safety and welcoming embraces. I fully claimed my identity and let go of all the last vestiges of societal conformity that had somehow snuck into my autistic brain despite a lifelong belief that gender roles and societal norms were bullshit. I cut my hair into the cropped red waves I’d imagined on my head as a child, and it felt like me. The only thing that didn’t feel like me was my name.
I never specifically disliked my name. I just wore it like an ill fitting sweater, swapping it out experimentally with more comfortable options but always returning to it’s scratchy material because it was my uniform and I felt obligated to wear it. The more I connected with myself and my identity though, the more confining it felt. I was growing, and the already poor fit was becoming rapidly more uncomfortable. A barista held a sharpie up and asked my name for my coffee cup, and I hesitated several beats too long. We stared at each other awkwardly while I searched my mind for my name, and finally mumbled it out. She wrote it down with a raised eyebrow and I stared at it. It looked odd. A few months later I was filing documents for my certification as a midwife, which required signing my name over and over again. Every single time I wrote it down it looked a little stranger, more foreign, more awkward. I felt incredibly disassociated from the name I’d had since birth, but that wasn’t exactly a new feeling. It was just more apparent now.
When I decided to change my name, I didn’t have to read baby name books or look online for inspiration. I knew Arden was my name, it always had been. I felt like me, writing it was natural and answering to it was second nature. After I made the conscious decision that a name change was inevitable, I looked up the meaning of my chosen name.
Arden: Unisex, pronounced ARD-en. Latin origin, the meaning of Arden is “a forest”.
11 year old me knew. 21 year old me knew. 28 year old me knew. It was always meant to be my name, and now I’m claiming it. It feels obvious, and I’m not sure why it took me 28 years to realize I didn’t have to wear an ill-fitting sweater when my flowing forest-green cape was there all along. So hello, nice to meet you. I’m Arden.