This post is about identity. I will ask you to write down a list of attributes before giving you a list of my own. Then I will go on to talk about how depression has stripped me of who I am. Not lots of fun. I don’t always react like one should. This isn’t a story about how I should have dealt with the circumstances, but the much more grim reality of what life was and is like. This post will just be what identity struggle is like. There will be a future post on things I have learned. This post will be realistic, so will be about how life sucks for the most part, hopefully more of an insight into depressed life.
But to start off with here is some words from a dear family member. He is remarkably articulate for being in such a difficult situation and so many of his words resonate with me. The part in bold particularly struck me as a brilliant articulation. But this is to show how much I have changed in the past several years, that I can resonate with this now, but never would have before.
“Depression is like drowning, except you can see everyone around you breathing.
Depression isn’t just being sad, it’s an ongoing state of feeling numb and broken.
It’s like feeling dead, but not actually being able to die.
I am depressed. I don’t like what I am.
I look in the mirror and I see many things, but not my own self.
I don’t know who I am anymore and maybe I never will.
Maybe I’m to far gone and passed the point of return.
I don’t understand why I haven’t killed myself yet, I really don’t. I hate myself. I have no friends. I’m not good at anything.
I’m a complete disappointment to myself.
I’m alone in a world full of people, how pathetic is that?
I honestly don’t know what it is that’s stopping me from ending it all.
I’m failing at school. All I want to do is sleep. Maybe I just want to die accidentally so nobody can blame themselves for it.
Or maybe I might just do it myself and take all of the blame. I hate being so alone. I used to have many friends and now it’s just me. How can I like myself if other people don’t even like me? How am I supposed to be happy when I’m constantly bringing myself down?”
There should be a trigger warning at the top of this. *Warning – this will be interactive. Students in exam mode beware.*Imagine if you wrote down a list of all the ways you could describe yourself. In fact, go do it now on your phone or on a piece of paper. Write down nine statements describing yourself. For example,
Has a good memory, Fun, Relationship orientated, Athletic, Reliable, Confident, Relaxed, TCK, Servant of God
How did your list look? If you are like me your list would not be on a piece of paper or written on your phone as it should be, but rather just a list in your head.
How many of the statements on that list would you have to take away before it stopped describing you? At what point would you say, that is no longer me? What would have to change to you for you to say that you are a different person, a Jason Bourne like transformation?
Change is not a bad thing. I believe that we should all be actively pursuing change and that we can always become better and Godlier people. We should constantly be striving to become more humble and wise. But that is change that we like, it is moral improvement in our character. But what about our personality? Things like preferences of sport don’t seem to be that important, so why should we change them?
17 year old Noggy could have definitely done with some hair though.
I have had a horrid time the last several years. One of the most prevalent themes in this nightmarish episode has been identity. Who am I? How do I know who I am? I have constantly struggled to understand who I am and what that means in my life. This isn’t an episode of teenage angst (otherwise it would have ended on my 20th birthday), but rather a desperate plea to understand me. So if any of you have any idea of who I am please let me in on your secret.
That list I put as an example may look familiar to some of you. They are all positive ways in which I would have described myself when I left school. However, I would only use two of those to describe myself now. The only things that depression couldn’t take away from me on that list, the final two. I will just go through each item and talk about it briefly.
When at school I had a very good memory. I used to play chess quite competitively. In the five years in which I played I could remember every single competitive match. It was literally tens of thousands of moves in order over a five year period. If you played a chess game in front of me, even quite a quick game, where each player had 50 moves, I could repeat the hundred moves in order no problem. Multiple concussions later I still could remember most things.
This all changed when I got depression. It was one of the scarier and unforeseen symptoms. It freaked me out at first. I didn’t know what was going on. I couldn’t remember conversations I was having with people. They would make inside jokes I was supposed to get and I would have no recollection of the events. I was constantly forgetting people who I had met before much to my frustration.
I am not really a planner type, much more of a spontaneous person. However, this was reinforced by my depression. I could no longer remember any of the plans I made with people. I kept forgetting skype dates and coffee meetups. I couldn’t remember what I had planned for the next day.
I started to realise how bad it was getting when people asked me how my week was and I had no answer. Or at least not a wholly competent one. I would always respond with good, but I couldn’t actually remember. Whole days were gone. They can usually be brought back with a lot of effort and outside help.
Depression also started to affect my memories in different ways. In my first year I often would think back to the great times me and my friends had at school, but those memories changed dramatically. First of all I can’t remember most of them. Often people St. Andrews will remind me of memories which I had told them previously but since forgot. I love hanging out with my friends from school because they can bring back memories which are long forgotten to me, hidden beneath an ever present haze which can only be penetrated with the help of others.
For the memories which I do have depression has spread like a poison. It ruins the good memories, capable of turning even the sweetest of times into intolerable nightmare. I remember once thinking of my brother’s wedding. It was a wonderful time of joy and family and community. It was a very sweet and precious time. However, even that can seem like a trying and difficult time. I can only see the bad in it, and where it doesn’t exist my depression lends a hand and adds non-existing pain and sorrow to them. Embarrassment and shame creep into my favourite memories. Sometimes I am afraid to think about any good times because I know that my brain can distort and destroy those memories. I want them to remain sweet, but depression won’t allow that.
That was the first item on my list. I had it forcefully taken from me. I had no choice. My memory was a great asset, and now seems like a treacherous tool. I am never sure if it will work for or against me, and often I am scared to find out. It is one of the reasons why I hate writing this blog on occasion. I have to use it. I have to look back, and it is never fun to take it upon myself, it sucks.
The next two items were fun and relationship orientated. I still like to think I am fun, on occasion, whenever I am feeling energetic enough, and whenever I can concentrate long enough to play a game or have a conversation, and whenever I am feeling not anxious to the extent that I can tolerate being alive, and whenever I don’t feel light headed and like passing out, and whenever I am not super irritable and bitter, and whenever I actually want to be alive. But I am not that fun a lot of the time.
In my second year at university I was desperate for fun. I really wanted to be a fun person, but more importantly to have fun. So I tried the things which I knew I enjoyed. I played football. But I remember being dizzy so struggling with it. Then I started falling over as I was running, so got frustrated. I remember getting fouled from behind by someone who was frustrated that they were losing and I was so close to losing it. I wanted that person to suffer for what they had done. I wanted their legs to be broken so that they could never play football again. I wanted to punch them in the face. I wanted them to feel the terrible agony which riddled my soul so that they could suffer the pain I was going through and be responsible. So I had to stop. I couldn’t keep playing football because I hated it. I hated the people I played with and the people I played against. I hated every foul and every injustice.
Now I have always been competitive, so have hated losing. However, competitiveness need never come at the price of good sportsmanship. Being Godly on the field is far more important than winning. So I would always be a good sport (or at least try to). I have never lost my temper on the pitch and will always shake the hands of my opponents (unless it is my brothers, then I will wind them up as much as possible). I had been taught this lesson by my mum. When I was seven years old my football team lost and I was so upset I went over to her and just cried instead of shaking the hands of my opponents. My mum said I had to go back but I didn’t want to because I had lost. So she made me write them all cards at school and apologize. The shame that brought upon a seven year old Noggy was enough to instill a great desire to be a good sport.
But playing football in second year was terrible. It was one of my favourite things in the world, with my friends, and felt like hell. I would rather die than replay those matches. I had no desire for fun, or ability for it. I had only bitterness and anger. I was a hollow shell of a human being, surrounded by a crusty shell of anger and bitterness which extended into all areas of my life. The desire to kill the other people on the pitch flagged up that it was probably a good idea I stopped playing. One of the most important things in my life had been reduced to a torturous exercise.
Another area this was clear was in relationship building. There were very few people who I wanted to interact with. On many days there were literally two people in St. Andrews who I didn’t feel extremely bitter towards. One some days I was angry at them too, but I hated people in general. I started to despise everyone around and was so angry at them. I couldn’t stand my course mates, my church group drove me crazy, I wanted to distance myself from my flatmates, the people I played football with were insufferable. No one was spared my internal wrath. Even thinking about the anger is frightening. Human beings should never think those things about people. We are designed for so much better.
To all my friends who knew me, I am so sorry, I really did try my best to be a good friend, and I know I wasn’t always. So thanks for putting up with me. I can still be very angry at times, but you guys are so great and I love you so much! Depression makes it very difficult to make friends. It makes it very difficult to care about people. It makes it very difficult to invest in relationships. It makes it very difficult to try at life. It makes you want to give up on relationships. I can’t change it. I can fight it with others help, but there is no easy fix. I have changed from someone who is fun and loves people to someone who internally is struggling to care about either. And I have no control over that which is horrible.
Athletic and reliable are the next two things on the list. I am clearly not athletic anymore. This is perhaps one of the easiest things on the list to change. Two years ago I was trying to run a sub five minute mile and now I can hardly run. This is only partially the result of depression, I have had a couple of bad knee injuries as well. But I am getting back into exercise this week with my friend Iain (shout out to our snapchat diet and exercise program). Everyone needs to be doing exercise, particularly those with depression. The last few years have been alright for me exercise wise, but could be a lot better. This semester I have had an eight week period bad spell which has involved tinkering of my anti-depressants. So I have been too dizzy to exercise. But it is super important for everyone so I am going to get back to it. It is one of the better anti-depressants.
This is another part of my identity which has been taken from me, although to be honest I hope to get it back. And it is one of the less bothersome one. Usually I am so overwhelmed with life that the idea of being athletic slips down the priorities list. If you are feeling so terrible that you don’t really want to live a desire to be athletic is often lacking.
Reliability is something that is very important to me. Primarily because it helps build trust and trust is crucial to relationships. But I don’t feel like I am super reliable. My friends would be able to attest to this, as would my lecture attendance record (mum don’t read that last part). I often need to cancel plans at the last minute. I often become suddenly and cripplingly ill because of my depression, so have to disappoint my friends. I desperately want to be someone who people can rely on, but I can’t even rely on me. I don’t know if I will be ill tomorrow.
This is not even just a case of being physically there for people. Sometimes when I am there for people physically I am emotionally unreliable. One day I am compassionate and caring for the person, the next angry and bitter. I can’t be consistent. I don’t like to think of myself as an angry person, but I have gone for long periods where I have had little room in my heart for anything other than burning rage. I can’t always be depended on emotionally, which is far from who I want to be. I want to be able to always support my friends, but can’t even rely on myself.
This has certainly been the case spiritually as well. There are so many times when I forgot to pray for people despite committing to. There are so many times when I haven’t respected the spiritual connection in myself or others. I often feel like I can’t be trusted. Yet, being trustworthy is one of the characteristics I want to pursue.
This is a trait which I had always wanted and arrogantly admired in myself. Yet the last few years of cancelled plans and letting my friends down has forced me to revise how I look at myself. I am a failure in this respect which is frustrating. Also it is one of the character traits I feel like perhaps I could have fought harder to keep. But that is part of the challenge of depression. It is messy and unclear how and when to fight it. There is little guidance on when to relax and when to fight it. Both are key, but are both challenging and confusing.
The next two traits are confident and relaxed. These are suitable to do together (almost like I planned that) because they both seem like a distant joke because of my anxiety. They have been taken away by the same nemesis. I used to think I could take on the world, and worse, I thought it was a good thing. This was in no doubt influenced by the individuality prevalent in western culture which was implanted in me through films, books, and my school. When this is paired with ideals of manliness it comes at a devastating price.
(Off the top of my head I believe that in the UK ¾ people treated for depression are women, yet ¾ people who commit suicide are men. Those statistics are very rough, but despite their inaccuracy reveal a poignant truth about the state of our culture and what it means to man up. Any RVA staff reading this please get rid of or change the 10th grade guys bible study if you want those guys to have hope of emotional maturity and mental health. Seriously, it is barbarically unbiblical)
So I have changed a lot over the past few years. In fact the change happened in just a few weeks because of anxiety. It is difficult to describe quite how bad I had it. But perhaps the best way is to imagine a phobia you have. My flatmate is hilarious afraid of spiders, so feel free to send him pictures of them if you are friends with him on facebook. If you have no phobias (and I didn’t at the time) imagine the feeling you get when something jumps out at you. Now imagine the fear that grips your heart when your phobia kicks in. Whether it is spiders or heights think about the moment when you realise your situation and the fear grips you.
It is kind of like that all the time. That moment when reason leaves you and fear grips your heart. That instant when you are paralyzed by the fear is what severe anxiety is like all the time.
I lost count of the number of days I was petrified of everything. I went from having to no phobias to being scared of getting out of bed (my flatmates aren’t that scary either). I was gripped with horror if I thought about leaving my covers. I couldn’t bear the thought of putting on my jeans in the morning. People terrified me, cars terrified me, loud noises terrified me, and the cold terrified me (this is a particular problem in Scotland). I become light headed and dizzy if I try to walk. Sometimes I start to shake and want to break down in tears, dismayed at the thought of life. I couldn’t turn to people for help because it was anxiety inducing and would make things worse. If I ever tried to explain things it made it worse. Pretty much the opposite of confident and relaxed.
The weird thing is that on others days when I am feeling less anxiety I am back to being confident and relaxed. I feel like with God supporting me I can’t fail. I feel like I can totally trust him and that brings about feelings of total relaxation. However, when I have anxiety the trust still exists, but there is not much room for anything other than anxiety.
This wasn’t what I should have done, and I can sometimes slip into it because I am often so irritable. Irritability is one of the more frustrating symptoms of both my depression and the anti-depressants I am on. Please bear with people who have depression, they will get annoyed a lot easier, but they can’t do anything about that. What we can do is choose what to do with those feelings. For so long I embraced them, which wasn’t wise.
The Third Culture Kid Life
This is one of the character traits that will never change. It is at the centre of all my beliefs and in many way is the most influential part of who I am because it forms how I view reality. I can’t escape it. The benefits and scars of it will be with me for life. I can never turn it off or take a break, which is a blessing and a curse. It is an unchanging part of my life, but ironically is the cause of a lot of identity challenges.
Third culture kids struggle with identity. We act differently from one context to the next, but which one is the real us? A good example of this is the way I act around older people. In the UK I don’t really know how it is done. Here there tends to be less honouring of elders. Although people are taught to respect them, there seems to be more of a friendship of peers. I am expected to joke around with them just like I would with people my age. This confuses me thoroughly. I don’t know what is appropriate. Particularly because a lot of my sense of humour revolves around winding people up.
This is in stark contrast to what it was like for me growing up in Kenya. I would never dream of winding up an elder. There needs to be a lot more respect. There is also a lot more precedent about how much attention to pay them when I am in the room with others and how to greet them.
This came into stark contrast when I was chatting to my friend Laura and the minister of our church popped into the conversation to say hi. I freaked out because I didn’t know how to cope. I don’t know the British protocol for such things. Do I turn to the minister and ignore Laura (which is pretty much what I did, sorry)? Or do I say hi but continue my conversation? I didn’t know how to cope because I was torn between two cultural ideologies and wasn’t sure which one I belonged to.
The truth is that as a TCK I belong to neither. I fall in the middle. I may know both but am not at home with either. This is a trivial example compared to some of the much deeper aspects of identity. However, what this does is that it splits your soul in two, or three, or four. Culture is at the heart of who we are as humans, and TCK’s have that shattered. It allows us to see the world far more richly. We have a 3D perspective of reality which cannot be captured otherwise. Our exposures to different worldviews give us a multi-dimensional understanding of life.
However, there is a painful price in terms of identity. The best way to describe it is to compare us to Voldemort He-who-must-not-be-named from Harry Potter (spoilers). In the story he splits his soul into seven pieces so that he is more difficult to kill. The price of this is that it makes his soul unstable. It is trying to live seven lives at once.
Now TCK’s don’t all want to destroy the world, so rest easy. However, there are a lot of similarities. Because culture is so deeply inset into our souls growing up among cultures is like splitting our souls. Our identity is shattered, often living multiple realities concurrently. This gives us a greater understanding of life, but at a price. We are more unstable. We can never go back to our home. We can never go somewhere where we feel safe culturally because we are divided. We will never find solace this side of eternity because we have been molded as something with is inherently a multiplicity. This makes understanding who we are very difficult. We can often relate to bits and pieces of various parts of the world, but will always stand out in the one which we are in.
There is a Kenyan proverb that says “A tree that forgets its roots will die” or a similar one is “A river which forgets where it came from will die.” So what chance to TCK’s have when we are not made of a single tree. We are composed of several streams feeding into the same river. We have no one place to look back to, we are relatively isolated.
There are literally books written on the topic of identity and TCK’s. I also have a lot more to say about it, so would love to chat about it, but don’t want to make this super long. For now I will say that identity for TCK’s needs to look a lot different than it does for other people. I also believe it is a lot more challenging than for other people. However, this does not mean we should give up. We are never alone, no matter how much we feel it, and there are others like us, even if it is only a tiny minuscule of the population.
If you are not a TCK and have TCK friends just take my word for it, they are vastly different than you and there are parts of them which you will never be able to relate to. My parents are not TCK’s, and have 25 years of cross cultural experience, but will never be able to relate to me as a TCK. If you want to help us don’t fight that. Just ask a lot of questions about every part of their life. Be very interested in their roots, even though they are a messy tangle.
The last point is being a servant of God. God is good and always has and always will love me. He never changes. This is the second aspect that hasn’t changed. He has always been by my side. I have never been mad at him. He is perfectly good and does no wrong. Even when I was hating life and everything in it God loved me. Even when my mind has flown into a murderous rage God has been patiently waiting for me to calm down. Even when I am done with life and want it to end God is there dragging me on. It is the reason I haven’t committed suicide, I want to put his desires before mine because He is perfect. He will never let me down and is totally reliable. It is an unshakable part of my identity.
So to take us back to the beginning. How much of your identity would you have to lose to stop being you? Depression has forcibly stripped me of who I am, totally changing me. Over the space of a month I was a totally different person. I didn’t know how to cope with any aspect of life. It was as if someone had slipped sun glasses over my eyes. I had to get used to doing life in a much darker way.
But who am I? When one has a cold their identity isn’t in jeopardy. They just rest for a few days and get better, but I know people who have had depression for 30 years. This is a much more serious physical ailment because it forcibly changes your identity.
The last few months I have been coming to terms with what it means to be depressed, what it means to have a mental health disability. I don’t like to think of myself as someone who is disabled, but I kind of am. Depression is now a word which I have to use when describing myself. It is one of the more notable features of my life.
I think that this is a really positive step. It does not mean that I am not worth less. In fact in many ways nothing has changed. I have always been messed up in various ways, so another type of brokenness has no impact on my value. But acknowledging that there is something which is deeply wrong with me, a physical ailment with spiritual consequences, allows me to fight it. I have a much better understanding of depression than I had before. I can talk about it without going numb in my extremities. I can answer questions about it without running to hide. I take it seriously. If I am feeling terrible and need a break I take it. If I am in need of help I can now ask for it.
It is horrible. I have to admit to being weak and I have to admit to needing help. But these are not bad things. There is nothing morally wrong with being weak and all humans need help. In fact needing help is one of the best ways to build relationships. Now I wouldn’t recommend depression, but there are depressed people in the world, and that is part of life.
I now see depression as part of my identity like I would my blond hair. I can change the colour of my hair, so it isn’t an essential part of who I am, but it currently is part of it. I hope and pray that it will one day depression will go away. We are constantly changing, but in this part of life I am depressed. And dealing with that is a lot easier once I realise it.