Bat Fit Update: Identity Crisis

It’s fair to say that the past few weeks haven’t been the easiest. The sunny side of life completely bypassed me for a time; as Radiohead would warble ‘...for a minute there, I lost myself, I lost myself‘. This particular post has been germinating for some time, if I’m honest. The past 12 months have seen significant changes in my life – a mix of positive and spectacularly awful – and I think it’s time to be honest with myself about how I feel now that a year has passed since my complete meltdown last Easter weekend. That weekend culminated in my resignation from work. I have no regrets about leaving. That phase of my life is done with, and it wasn’t conducive to my needs at the time, in fact it was positively hindering me from getting over my father’s death and dealing with other Big Bad’s, as Buffy would say.

Bat Fit 2015

Here’s the rub. When you work for over 20 years, put yourself through a higher national qualification and three degrees in the process, when every minute of your life is determined by other people’s deadlines, to suddenly be confronted with relatively unlimited free time can be quite daunting. You can make grandiose plans, aim to write a novel in six months, tell everyone that (and regret when the six months are up), spend your days almost entirely as you like, with a little housework thrown in for good measure. At first I was quite structured. Formulated plans, and even enacted some of them. Caught up with family and friends, got out and exercised.

When people asked me what I did / do with my life I am quite suitably vague. ‘On sabbatical’ is a favourite. To a degree that’s true. Wikipedia, that great knowledge guru, defines a sabbatical as ‘...In recent times, “sabbatical” has come to mean any extended absence in the career of an individual in order to achieve something. In the modern sense, one takes sabbatical typically to fulfil some goal, e.g., writing a book or travelling extensively for research.’

This is exactly why I took time out. Except – I’m not just absent from my career, I resigned from it. I can’t define myself by it anymore, and can’t introduce myself within it’s framework. I was a Grant Programme Executive with a charitable foundation, now I’m just unemployed.

And that hurts. It’s taken me months to admit it, but I feel like I lack status in the circles I frequent. I may hold those 3 degrees, but how does that relate to my everyday life? I may be attempting to write a book from scratch but I don’t feel like I can out myself as a writer. Yes, I’ve won competitions and had short stories published, but at a very modest level and my income this year from writing amounts to £25 of book vouchers. I am aware that this perception is coming directly from myself; it is not indicative of how my family and friends treat me at all, but there’s this nagging voice of doubt and self deprecation that has been getting the better of me lately.

While I’m being honest, let’s look at my literary output this year. Well, I started with a bit of a head rush. Wrote a decent short story that I am proud of, took stock of where I was at with the novel, identified additional reading, wrote test chapters to find the voice – then nada. Nothing. The past 5 weeks have just been a blank space inside my head. My emotions have been ricocheting off the walls of skin that encloses me. There have been dark places in my mind which I’ve found it very hard to clamber out of.

So I find myself approaching my All Fool’s birthday with trepidation and a huge sense of underachievement. Any confidence I ever had in my own abilities appears to have been vacuumed into the ether. I’ve drank too much and ate too much sugar, and woken up loathing myself even more for it. This in turn distresses Husband Underfoot who is my greatest cheerleader and has been an absolute sweetheart.

I’ve realised this week that I have a choice: I can sink with the emotional debris and give into my own inertia and uncertainty, or I can pull myself up my my 40 deniers and accept that every now and then there will be crumples at the ankles but hard work and a more structured day will help me straighten them out. I choose the latter.

I was helped by an essay by a brilliant young novelist, Hannah Kent, in the back of her bleakly superb Icelandic set book, Burial Rites, published here at the Guardian. I urge any aspiring writer to read it – there is so much I identify with. I’ve undergone a similar process, researched to ‘nth degree and then I’m suddenly facing the realisation that I need to write a 90,000 word novel. Word by word. Page by page. Like she did. Preferably with a first draft by September. An excerpt:

As with any high, however, there comes, inevitably, the crash. Finally in possession of the facts I had yearned after for two years, I no longer had any excuse not to write my book. Even as I write this article, my hands grow sweaty in remembrance of the trepidation and terror I felt. People speak of the fear of the blank canvas as though it is a temporary hesitation, a trembling moment of self-doubt. For me it was more like being abducted from my bed by a clown, thrust into a circus arena with a wicker chair, and told to tame a pissed-off lion in front of an expectant crowd. Sure, I had written short stories before. But that, to me, was no consolation. Just because I was a cat person did not mean I knew how to conquer a beast.

Thank you Hannah, for illuminating exactly how I am feeling. I’ve been castigating myself with labels – unemployed, unemployable, time waster, lazy, flawed, procrastinator – when really I am just at the start of something I have a vague idea of how to do, and no idea of how to own it. I need to change my labels, my identity.  I need to be brave enough to call myself a writer – and to sit down each day like Hannah Kent and just do it through the self doubt and uncertainty, because when I do I invariably surprise myself. There’s usually a nugget of joy in the fool’s gold. I don’t need to worry about approval from anyone else – I am after all my own editor and reader. I can own more positive labels – caring, thoughtful, generally kind of nice. Creative, curious, inquisitive. These are the labels I want to own, if indeed I must be labelled.

My future is fluid. It is entirely what I make it. And it’s ok if it doesn’t go so well, if I occasionally trip up so long as I don’t hurt anyone else along the way. I may not have a job title with the word ‘executive‘ in it anymore, but I have something much more precious – free time, a rather vivid imagination and a reasonably healthy intellect with which to play with. I just need to use it.

My lovely Pelikan deserves some use

My lovely Pelikan deserves some use

Thanks to anyone who has made it all the way through this mammoth post of mine. I’m off back to the books, and the fountain pen, the ink stained fingers and the occluded path I’ve chosen to follow. Thanks to wonderful writers like Hannah who make me realise that I’m not alone and that what I’m feeling is perfectly acceptable. And the greatest thanks to HU for giving me one of the best labels of all – beloved.

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14 thoughts on “Bat Fit Update: Identity Crisis

  1. I had a breakdown last year too, sometime around the same time I am guessing. After a year or so of job seeking after leaving uni and realising my degree was practically useless due to lack of jobs, when it was meant to just settle everything for me. Things were crazy. They still are a bit, and a bit up in the air, but I am learning to deal with anxiety and with myself, if nothing else. I have thought of myself as a writer for a long time, but have so far only accomplished some short stories and novellas, I am working on a novel, but sometimes the fear paralyses me. The same with study. I have to take my life one day at a time and most of all be kind to myself. Believe in yourself and give yourself love! Sometimes just getting out of the house can inspire you in your writing!

    • Thank you for your lovely comments. You are absolutely right, being kind to ourselves is a good place to start. I seem to be hiding in my local library a lot reading the newspapers from 1914-1918..one of these gave me a great prompt the other day so I’ve kickstarted another short story that may get woven into the novel, which is great.

      I hope that things improve for you this year as well. We’ll get there!

  2. I’m so sorry to hear that things have been difficult for you lately. I finish my MA in autumn this year, and just thinking about it makes me panic, so I cannot imagine how you must be feeling. My original undergraduate degree course (before I switched to English with Philosophy) was in Creative Writing, and a few of the friends I made there have been really struggling with a similar issue. I hope you feel better and that things start to fall into place for you soon.

    • Thanks for your lovely comments – and please don’t panic about what happens after university, but be sure to follow your heart if you can.

      I hope your CW friends find their way; the Hannah Kent article really is a good read – perhaps writers are all meant to be self doubting and a teeny bit neurotic!!!

  3. I used to live a pretty busy life; I attended university and at some point I had three jobs at once, then I started travelling and during all that time, I was writing and doing photography as well. Then my dad’s passing 4 years ago messed me up completely; I handled it quite well at the time, but in the back of my head, I started subconsciously revaluating my life, goals and my entire way of thinking…
    Besides, I had a pretty screwed up relationship and a stressful atmosphere at home as well, so after a while I became completely incapable of doing anything. Just like you, I lost myself. I decided to take some time off to figure things out too and the exact same thing happened to me: After a while I lost track of everything, which was so depressing, that in the end, I lost all my confidence…
    It’s only recently, that I’ve started getting better and I only needed a few major lifestyle changes and an amazing, supportive boyfriend for this…:)

    Anyway, I just wanted to say, that I can imagine how you’re feeling, but I can also tell, that you’re on the right track to get over it. Like you said, your future is fluid and it’s all in your hands. I’m sure this wasn’t the last time you felt a little hopeless, but whenever you get a little lost, you just have to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. You’re awesome and you can do this! 😉

  4. Janey.. you are brilliant.. I love you soo much and as long as we have our little family unit we will get through anything.. I know you are feeling low about your writing but what a lot of people don’t know is what a strong person you are.. A tiny little lovely person but with a backbone of steal. You are probably the strongest person I know… I didn’t make life easy for you when my dad died.. and then poor little mum was put into care.. I did some terrible things.. things that you have locked away deep inside.. things I know will affect you and get you down.. but you stuck by me, helped me and still love me.. so I will do anything to help with your current life and goals.. even if we end up living in a cardboard box.. as long as we are together and as long as you are happy and have a chance to stick two fingers up at the corporate machine.. My wish is for you to never have to work for anyone ever again.. work for yourself.. nobody owns or controls you. feel proud of yourself for that.. Love Him Under Foot (HUF)

    • Lovely big HUF (I like your addition of the ‘F’!). I thought long and hard about approving your comment, because you have nothing to apologise for any more. Life moves on, we do stupid things and we get over it. So, yes, 2 fingers to the corporate machine! But no cardboard boxes please!!!! I do have some standards to maintain!

  5. So I just finished reading this pretty amazing post (yes, all of it!) … how can you say you’re not a writer? 🙂

    It’s the getting started part that I find the hardest … once the supplies are out and I’ve spent months (maybe even years) thinking about it, the minute I actually force myself to start the physical act of creating, it all falls into place. It never goes swimmingly or anything – in my case there’s always issues – but once I finally start, I can’t stop. I hope it works that way for you, too. ❤

    • Thanks for taking the time to read that huge post, much appreciated 🙂

      Yu are absolutely right, once I sit down and start it generally goes pretty well. Today that is what I’m starting to do. Fingers crossed it works!

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