What happened when I lost myself, and how I found my way back again.
When I was in my late twenties, a funny thing happened. I forgot who I was.
I don’t mean that in a literal sense, like a b-grade thriller with a poster of the protagonist’s face reflected in shattering glass. But I don’t mean it in an entirely abstract sense either. Slowly, over some time (weeks? months? I’m not sure), I completely lost a sense of who I was in terms of what I liked, what I didn’t like, what I wanted, what I didn’t want. I forgot my own opinions. Where I did remember something, i.e. “I like going to the movies,” it was immediately followed up with: but do I? Is that actually a thing that I like? Or is it a thing that I’ve learned to like? Or is it a thing that I used to like? Or is it a thing that I do merely to avoid doing other things? (That last one was a biggie for me).
Most often, however, those questions didn’t arise, but neither did the initiating statement. I just purely lost all impulse or instinct for self-identification. It was somewhat alarming.
On reflection, I can see the years of factors that lead up to it. A five-year relationship had come to a close not long before this. It had done so in quite a dramatic way; without going into gory details, let’s say that not only did the relationship end, but so too did a tight group of friends that I had known since I was an early teen. They both blew up at the same time, and I was quite alone, and without the half-dozen or so people I had unconsciously depended on to help form my view on the world.
The irony was that the relationship probably should have never been anyway. Her and I just sort of tumbled together and stayed together, in the way that certain unfortunates have a tendency to do. A similar situation occurred in my work life: at 24 I stumbled into a white collar office job that I was not in any way interested in, and just sort of…stayed. I was at that job for two and a half years. They sold medical equipment. I still, to this day, don’t really understand how the machines worked or what they did.
(My least favourite character flaw: I can stay too long in situations that have long since become unsuitable. My other character flaws are far more entertaining.)
So it’s perhaps not surprising that at 27 (out of the relationship, still in the job, without the core network of friends I had depended upon for the last fifteen years), I suddenly had very little idea of who I was.
Old assumptions about myself just fell away and weren’t replaced with anything new. I remember one instance. Always a keen gamer, I went out and bought myself a Playstation 3 to cheer myself up. I took it back to my pokey Newmarket flat, set it up, popped in the disc, got instructed that I was about to go rescue the princess and…didn’t care. I profoundly didn’t care about the princess, or the multitude of demons I needed to destroy to get to her. Nothing seemed like a bigger waste of time than playing a game. It occurred to me that perhaps I had been playing games during my twenties as a way to avoid dealing with real life issues. I sold the console on Trade Me, taking a hit on the price.
The next thing that disappeared was going to the movies. Previously, I’d go all the time — at least once a fortnight. Even to stuff I didn’t care about. But now, I suddenly realised I didn’t care about the movies at all. I remember sitting in the cinema, waiting for a movie to start, realising that I was going to be required to care about new characters, learn a new story, thrill at a new plot twist. Like the princess and the demons, I just didn’t care. I got up and left. I didn’t go to a movie for a full year after that.
My flatting situation worsened and I left. I’ll spare you the details, but one flatmate fell in love with another flatmate and got weirdly aggressive. At the same time, yet another flatmate decided that we weren’t paying the landlord enough rent (!) and convinced the landlord to raise it (!?). I had, at this point, vague ideas of travelling so I decided not to move into another flat. Instead, I dropped my stuff off at my mum and dad’s place, and scored a housesitting gig. This brings me to the pointy end of the story.
I’m surrounded in this housesit by the artefacts of someone else’s life; in this case a late middle aged couple who had gone away for a few months on holiday. At this point I really did feel like a ghost, a formless thing with no personality, no wants or desires to speak of as his own.
It was a nice Howick house, and the one thing it did have a lot of were CDs. Classic middle aged white person CDs — The Pretenders, The Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and a tremendous amount of Bob Dylan albums.
I’d heard Dylan of course, but had never paid him much mind; in fact I believe I condescended to him pretty badly when peers at university started to discover him (a defence mechanism of someone who doesn’t have a clear idea of who they are, I’ve discovered, is to criticise the tastes of others while offering no alternatives of their own). I put on one of the CDs (a Best Of, if I remember rightly). I suppose I didn’t have anything else to do right at that moment.
I liked it. (Like a) Rolling Stone. That was the track that I first heard that I liked. Again, I had heard it before of course. But this time, I liked it.
It’s hard to describe how this felt, to feel the sensation of liking something after months of experiencing very few feelings — particularly opinions — at all. Would the sudden colouring of Dorothy’s world in The Wizard of Oz be too cliche? At least a little dramatic. It was not a glorious technicolor wipe-over of my entire life. It was more like a tiny, isolated piece of something that might be colour in the grey. A glittering in the dirt.
Having stumbled across this miniscule vein, I kept digging. I listened to more Dylan. I found I liked some more of it — the electric stuff more than the folk stuff, though Don’t Think Twice I enjoyed, perhaps not surprisingly given the content.
I watched the arthouse biopic I’m Not Here on DVD — another find in the strangers’ house. I loved it. I watched it again, and again. I realised that some people hadn’t liked it at all, and that didn’t bother me. I still liked it, and liking it in the face of others who didn’t thrilled me. I became obsessed with Dylan. I purchased knock-off Ray Bans from Trade Me so I could look like him. I tied my entire personality — the limp, weak sprout that it was — to the music of a rock/folk icon at least fifty years old.
Things started to happen from there, in fits and starts. I realised I did like some things that I used to think I did — though not always in the same form. I did like movies, for example, but I didn’t need to see every movie that came out at the theatre. I’d wait until there was something I really wanted to see — that way, my enjoyment of it would be heightened by it’s rarity, and I’d get the added benefit of deciding what was to my taste.
At some point I remember watching the DiCaprio/Winslet movie Revolutionary Road, a movie about the traps of everyday life that scared the crap out of me so bad I went in the very next day and quit my job. I had a vague plan of going to London. When I realised that that plan wasn’t really mine, but was the plan of thousands of Kiwis before me, I changed it to go teach English in Korea instead.
“Korea? That’s so weird!” people would say.
“Yes,” I would say, feeling like it was right for that reason if none other, and doing my best to ignore the nagging belief that if other people thought an idea wasn’t worthy, I should too.
I’ve got theories as to why I spent the bulk of my twenties falling into choices not really made by me (though in retrospect, the act of not deciding is a decision). I grew up creative, progressive and sensitive in a household where those values weren’t reflected back to me, and instead of defining myself as different, I learned to trust the opinions of others and disregard my own.
It’s still a thing I do, sometimes. I still wrestle with trusting my own read of a situation over others, and I can be far too easily swayed by others’ opinions — just sometimes. In fact, I’m writing about this now because I’m going through a much more mild version of what happened almost ten years ago — feeling a little lost and unsure of who I am or what I want.
One of the beliefs that I’ve been holding under scrutiny this time around is that I want to be a writer. I’ve said this my entire life — used it as an excuse to not to commit to jobs, beat myself up over it for never doing enough. A few weeks ago I sat down to do some writing (after putting it off for the entire day) and, after several minutes of routine self-doubt and critiquing, I said to myself: sitting down and writing makes you miserable. It’s the hardest thing in the world to you to do. Why on earth do you make yourself do it?
It was a dangerous thread to pull, because over the course of thirty-odd years I’ve allowed “I’m going to be a writer” to become central to my idea of who I am. But I pulled it. I mean, if you’re going to test the integrity of something, you want to test it at its very core, right?
In this case, however, I know not to panic. Thanks to my experience previously, I know that it’s a process that takes time to work, and that it’ll begin to resolve itself at its own pace. And, after all, it might already be working. After a couple of weeks of feeling blissfully free of the pressure to write, I had an urge to tell this story. Which I’ve just done. It felt nice. Not (Like a) Rolling Stone nice, but nice nonetheless.