I hate my given name. It’s not even that it’s a bad name – I’d call it ‘serviceable,’ being very generically Old Irish Catholic Guy from first to last name but otherwise inoffensive. I will almost miss its sheer thematic confidence, because it was so You Will Join the Clergy that it barely sounded like a real person’s name.
But I do hate it. I associate it with bad times, with being repeatedly and purposely hurt. I’ve gone by fluctuating nicknames my entire life and only really heard my given name in the context of home and possible harm. It’s a name that preludes evil done to me.
If you’re thinking about changing your name for personal reasons, I can share some (almost purely emotional) observations that might make the process a little easier. I can’t advise you legally since in spite of claims to the contrary it’s a very ‘feel along as you can,’ process from what I experienced, but I can tell you about what blindsided me emotionally so you can prepare for it.
1. This means a lot to you. More than you realize.
The first person I introduced myself to after filing to change my name was a rough-sleeping guy I see around town a lot, who flagged me down on my walk home from the courthouse and insisted we become name-sharing acquaintances. Though it wasn’t exactly official yet, my name just kind of fell out of my face. It felt unreal – but not wrong – to use that name so casually. It was this small, secret victory over everything my given name represented. I felt very in control, very put together.
Until, as I was walking away, he called, “Have a good day, Mr. ____,” at my back and tears surged into my eyes. I felt like the happiest, least sane person alive to be so affected by this thing I’d spent months convincing myself was a sentimental, cosmetic change. That I would not feel particularly different. Not that it was meaningless, but that the bulk of its meaning was sentimental and that this nullified its meaning entirely. It doesn’t. Don’t fuck around telling yourself or anyone else otherwise.
At the same time, though…
2. It means comparatively dick all to everyone else.
As with most uncommon quirks of personal experience, the decision to change one’s name inspires a certain insensitive curiosity in many people. This isn’t a personality flaw or a purposeful act of cruelty, only a human tendency that most people aren’t socialized out of. We encounter something unusual and want desperately to know more. It’s why you have to teach a kid not to stare at the man on the train and ask about his birthmark or his cane. They simply don’t understand what they’re doing is inappropriate because they lack the perspective to understand the gravity these things carry for other people.
Further complicating this, most people are happy with their given names. Even those who aren’t particularly fond of them tend to at least be reasonably satisfied. You may not be wild about having been named Eustace, but it’s hardly so bad as to require legal intervention.
The harsh reality is that most people aren’t prepared to take seriously this thing that, to you, is of utmost personal importance. Oh, they can try and they can get close, but it’s just naturally difficult to get in someone’s brain like that. To those without perspective, your experience is incomprehensible.
I’ve had people needle me about what my full name will be, pry about what my given name was, offer suggestions as to what I should Really change my name to, swarm me with questions about why I chose the names that I did, and generally badger me to madness about this thing that’s so very personal to me.
And, because I know some of those people are reading this: That’s fine. Not knowing what someone is going through doesn’t make you bad, it makes you limited like everybody else. I don’t begrudge any of you.
3. You will waffle and fixate and feel positively ridiculous.
I chose my surname last. Except, I chose it first. I kind of chose my first name last except for the time I got very insecure about my middle name and had to sit for a whole day and re-evaluate why I wanted it. But my first name is a transmutation of one I sort of used as a pseudonym for passing acquaintances I didn’t expect to see again starting at 17, so is almost first. But I used my surname as a mononymous pen name in (very, very bad) submissions for ages.
This is to say: Choosing names is difficult, even choosing them for yourself. If you feel doubt during any part of the process it’s not an indication that you’re doing something wrong or stupid. You’re just thinking very hard about something very important. In my case, the names I hemmed and hawed over most were the ones to which I felt most attached.
The middle name’s sort of a dumping ground/second choice name spot. You likely won’t hear it often in casual conversation, and plenty of people don’t even write it in their signature. That was settled fast, a brief flirtation with uncertainty aside.
Your first name – or a diminutive thereof – is almost always your Face Name. It’s the name under which friends, coworkers, and acquaintances file your face. For most people, it’s the closest you get to a completely personalized label, something selected just for you. Your surname, by contrast, is implicitly impersonal. It’s less Yours, and that’s expected. It’s heritable, received as a matter of course, and communicates more about your origins and composition than whatever traits (your parents hoped) you (might) possess. These are the names it took me forever to choose, or to accept having chosen.
4. Everything takes forever.
If you don’t have a certified copy of your birth certificate, that’ll take about a month to get to you after you scrape up all the information needed to send for it. Once you make your petition to change your name, it can take more than a week for your final signing/hearing to get scheduled. It will be a week or more after the day you finally receive your schedule.
Every step will drive you duck-dick-crazy. What you’re doing takes an extreme conviction that will burn at you the longer you’re sat there with nothing to do about it. This is important (as outlined above) and waiting for important things positively blows.
The absolute longest spell of anxiety-induced time dilation I experienced was the fifteen minutes I spent on a bench in the courthouse corridor waiting for my hearing. The grind and hiss of the drinking fountain, the heat wound up to mid-January levels in early October, I experienced them for a lifetime.
5. This thing you feel you must do is valid.
For some, a name is a weight. It doesn’t matter why. It hurts to hear, to say, to write.
I must repeat: It doesn’t matter why. If the sounds you have to hear every time someone wants to talk to you, the shapes you have to make every time you have to finalize something, hurt you, it doesn’t matter why. If you can’t imagine that name on your headstone, it doesn’t matter why.
There is no minimum level of abuse or dissonance required to undertake the objectively cold and bureaucratic process of legally changing your name. The meaning you make of it is yours.
You’re the only one who’ll have to carry it around forever.
You’re the only one who can conceptualize how it wounds or disgusts you to hear and say it.
As with so many things in life, you must trust yourself for validation in this choice. It feels so important to you because it is, not because you’re overly invested in something that’s a given for everyone else.
Stepping through the courthouse metal detectors on the day of my hearing, I was seized by a clammy, skin-digging urge to ditch the appointment and not go through with this. It was sharp and brief like a spat of hot grease on bare skin, but in that nanosecond flash that emotion had a voice:
“You are a crazy person.”
“Yes,” I conceded, politely, as the guard waved me through so I could retrieve my bag and belt. “But I’m prepared to be my own crazy person now.”