Coping with a loss of identity and purpose
12th March 2018
As a child I was active. I enjoyed the outside, football, running, cycling. I was a typical child growing up in England in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
As a teenager I started to become aware of who I was. That is to say, who I felt I 'should' be. Identity became an important part of my thinking.
I think it's fair to say that it's something I struggled with a great deal.
I'm not sure how it came about.
In school I was popular. I had my close circle of friends; friends that I'm fortunate to still remain in contact with and consider very close.
But there were dark periods. Periods of bullying. Up until the age of 16 I wore glasses and that was (and probably still is) a great target for the bully.
My confidence was often left in ribbons and the walk home from school seemed longer. Anxiety levels increased and I feared for the next day in school. No surprise then that my grades suffered.
On the one hand I was looking around with great envy at those young guys who had an identity (sports, academic, cool, popular) and on the other hand I was battling great stress.
I wasn't overweight or goofy in any way. I was a reasonably good looking lad but I had enormous confidence issues.
When college came I ditched the glasses for contact lenses. Everything changed.
I was taller and had a better build. I walked with confidence and attended all the coolest parties.
My first girlfriend was a big deal for me. She was cool. I was cool. I was spending a lot of time drawing and enjoying art class. Life was good.
I felt as though my identity was defined somewhere between 'boyfriend', 'artist', 'friend' and 'popular guy'.
It didn't last long.
One day during a class in art college I was called to the principal who promptly and without great ceremony ordered me to leave and not come back.
It shocked me. Floored me.
My confidence was once again in ribbons and the anxiety came flooding back.
It shouldn't have surprised me. I was lazy and cocky. I skipped lectures to go and drink in the local pub. I'd pushed my luck for too long and the college had had enough.
My girlfriend at the time dumped me.
I was at rock bottom and still had to face my parents.
That was the worst bus ride I've ever known.
The next day I remember waking and thinking 'I have to do something about this'. I was 19.
I probably didn't realise it at the time but I was going through a grieving process.
I'd lost my thread in life. Lost my direction. I'd been booted out of the relative safety of further education and found myself hurtling toward planet Earth with no parachute.
My identity that I'd become so proud of, was shattered. Everything that I'd worked hard to achieve with my identity was crushed.
I cared a great deal about identity. Too much.
The next few years saw me working and earning money.
I missed the daily art routine and looked to draw as often as I could. I also developed a love for writing. My employment was relaxed enough to allow me to write and draw during office hours.
I dated the receptionist. We became engaged. And then we separated.
A year later I met the woman that would become my wife and mother to my children.
We dated for a few years, got engaged and married.
What I remember most about the period shortly after marriage was how 'complete' I felt.
My identity, that one thing I'd wanted to establish for so long, was right there.
My calling in life, if you like, was to be a husband.
A few years later I was to be a father.
The line graph of my happiness was on the rise following a series of troughs.
And then, as if to say 'woah, sunshine. Not so fast!' Life dealt me a blow. An enormous blow.
My brother died.
This time I was grieving for real.
The process was hard. It took its toll on my marriage.
Shortly thereafter I became disabled. I still walk with crutches to this day.
Not long after that, my father died.
And then finally, as if to slam the lid on the coffin, my wife of 12 years decided she'd had enough. My best friend of 18 years and person I'd given so much to, called it a day.
So there I was.
Single, disabled and completely and utterly lost.
Devoid of any purpose or identity.
My enthusiasm for life had gone.
My desire to work and earn and provide had gone.
I rented a place and tried hard to stand up again (metaphorically speaking).
After several months of despair I found the confidence to get out more and meet new people.
I clung to friends and family; which at this point consisted soley of my mum.
I clung to my children and spent as much quality time with them as I could.
I adore my children. Without them, well, who knows.
In the last few years since 'rock bottom' I've come to appreciate things that I wouldn't normally have considered. The natural world around me. The good in people. The energy, wonder and enthusiasm of children. All of these things are beautiful things. Positive things. Things that continue to inspire and motivate me.
I also realised that my identity hadn't really changed that much at all since childhood.
My passion for art was still there. In fact I had more time to dedicate to it.
My love of the outdoors and all that mother nature has to offer is still there. Even if I can't run or cycle through it anymore I can still appreciate it.
My identity as a friend and popular guy was still there.
My identity as a husband and father was now just father. But that in itself encouraged me to become the best father I could be.
The most important thing to realise was that what is important to me, my identity, has never really changed. What is most important is that I am just 'me'. Nobody else. Just me.
That never changed and never will change. Regardless of my disability or divorce.
We are, in almost every respect, the product of our experiences. Better yet, we are the product of how we deal with those experiences. The good experiences feed us with positivity. The bad experiences test us.
It's how we challenge such negativity that generates the positivity and motivation that drives us forward.
Thanks for reading.