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Though we may admit this only to a trusted few, or perhaps just to ourselves, deep down, we tend to be rather hopeful that we will eventually live happily-ever-after – and these fairy-tale endings look different to everyone. For myself, I always pictured finding work that supported both my passion for contributing meaningfully to the community and my unflinching desire to have a wardrobe that rivalled Carrie Bradshaw’s, falling madly in love with a silly but soulful British musician with snake bites and flippy hair who was just as crazy about me, and settling down in a Victorian terrace that overlooked expansive wild gardens where our kids could ride their bikes and play fetch with the family dog. Specifically in that order.
But life rarely goes according to plan. It has a habit of dealing us a range of blows that often leave our goals and dreams shattered, actually. It is in these moments of disillusion that we as people can shatter too. I have felt broken and like my identity had, for a time, either been suspended, taken hostage, or annulled once or twice, and I might again. So have many others I suspect, especially those with mental health difficulties. I’ve come to realize, however, that these trying times that crack us open and tear us apart also present a whole spectrum of possibilities. Scars can be a reason to hide from – or face – the world. In Japan, they call this Kintsugi, where smashed pottery pieces are carefully picked up, reassembled, and glued back together with visible lacquer. The point is not to disguise the breaks but to render their fault lines as precious veins of gold, beautiful and strong. Shattered ceramics, just like shattered people, go from being things that are damaged to things that are made more extraordinary from that same damage.
In our very human, very messy lives, these breaks and breakdowns are inevitable, but I think it’s wise and healthy to view our wrong turns, detours, mistakes, and pauses as natural and part of the complicated and imperfect process of forging a self. They can be acutely painful and act as uncomfortable barriers that constrain us (and they regularly do!), but they can also be powerfully transformative.
I didn’t always share this Kintsugi perspective, though. In fact, it’s only been a very recent development. I am 28, but I was unwell for most of my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood, diagnosed with a severe mental illness when I was 10 years old. With it came a devastating loss of certainty – about everything, including who I was – and a conviction that my brain was both defective and demonic. I believed I was evil for a time, fated to spend my days trapped inside the prison that was my chaotic and unbearably heavy mind or behind bars in an actual prison.
But fast forward 15 years, three semi-reluctant hospital admissions, and 200-odd visits to the psychologist’s office, I found myself thinking and feeling differently – I was ready to take on the world as a young adult who had worked on herself and healed enough to believe she could lead a normal, healthy life. I was going to be like any other 24-year-old. One of the first things I did when I relocated from one city to another, however, was fall for an abusive man. He was my first love, but it wasn’t like what you see in movies or read about in Nicholas Sparks’ novels. It was brutal and frightening and hopeless. It was, to put it bluntly, the kind of psychological trauma that threatens one’s safety, stability, and sanity.
I have spent much of this life trying to restore myself to something of an ‘original state,’ desperately seeking to conceal the damage done by these unpleasant lived experiences and leaving no room for their acceptance. Ultimately, though, I have epically, seismically failed – and I am so glad I have. While this distress placed me in a unique form of exile from myself, banishing me to a new foreign land within my body and mind where everything was unfamiliar, I have also come to realize that these chapters, as horrific as they were, have also changed me in some ways that I am grateful for. This is not to say that I am exceptionally grateful for the chapters as a whole, nor that I think my identity has done a complete 180. It is more that I acknowledge that certain parts of my core were strengthened on those pages. I can experience healing and edit my story by reevaluating the beliefs I hold about myself and updating my purpose, and I can now also appreciate the entirety of me – the shiny bits I like and the cracked, messier bits I’m less fond of but recognize are no less valuable.
To develop this sense of personal agency and start influencing the design of my life after quite literally losing my mind and slowly detaching myself from someone who broke my heart and my spirit, I had to bridge the gap between the ‘known and familiar’ and that which is ‘possible to know.’ I was stuck telling stories about my life that were solely based on the former, but these were overwhelmingly negative and cyclic. I had been swallowed by shame for two and half decades and it was only when I started being completely, disarmingly honest with myself and the people trying to help me that I learned to see the damaged parts as potentially valuable. They add to my story, but they aren’t my entire story. They have certainly held me back and made forging a self very difficult, forcing me to press pause and rewind many times over the years, but they have also allowed me to see identity as something that is fluid and ever-evolving – it no longer has to be fixed or well-defined. I no longer have to be fixed or well-defined either.
These rabbit holes could very well have stolen me from myself, and they did for a while. Survivors of any kind of terrible knock-back or trauma often fear they will never be the same again, like once their identity shatters, they will feel like strangers to themselves. But maybe that’s okay. Maybe change, as scary and unwelcome as it is, can even be a little unexpectedly good.