By Freddie Cocker
What are the qualities that form our identities? Is it the character traits that define each of our individual personalities? Is it the hobbies or interests that we are known to take part in or the relationships we create with other people?
The answer is probably a combination of all three of those as well as other factors I haven’t mentioned.
For most people, they have carved out and created their own identity from an early age. They’ve become comfortable in their own skin and forged a path for themselves in life based on a strong sense of self-confidence.
However, for many of us, including myself, identity is a fraught concept, riddled with negative complexities, self-doubt and a propensity to distance yourself from the very qualities that make you who you are as a person, positive or negative.
For me, this was certainly the case. From a very young age, my identity was one which was imposed on me by other people, rather than through my own journey of self-discovery. The qualities that defined me and the character traits I was given were ones given to me by bullies in school or those who disliked or hated me.
Words like “annoying”, “loud”, “irritating”, “ugly” and “loser” became more than just words. They became labels of ever-deepening wounds, with every utterance I heard a puncture to my self-esteem, taking me further down the rabbit-hole of nihilistic self-esteem, suicidal thoughts and actions and a battle-axe to my confidence. The long-term scars they left destroyed my ability to define who I was myself, causing me to become a shell of the person I was capable of being.
Once I left secondary school, I was able to leave the toxic and horrific environment I was engulfed in but the scars remained and the neurological malfunction was still there. I had no cognitive ability to recognise the contribution I gave to someone or a social group.
I was too paranoid to ask people what they thought of me, too scared to think that maybe their affection and acceptance of me was genuine and too scarred by past instances of false social acceptance to believe that I had integrated into somewhere properly. The only way I pieced together remnants of my own identity and the behaviour I mirrored onto others was through other people opining what they thought of me to my face.
It took me several years before I was able to even tell my full name to someone when introducing myself because people laughed at my proudly Northern but rude/amusing name. Most of the time I would give my first name and then try and change the conversation whenever someone asked me my surname, such was the intense anxiety that years and years of personal abuse had caused me.
I also supported an unfashionable football team, Huddersfield Town. It’s a team I am immensely passionate about and proud to support now but back then it was another part of my identity that was hugely stigmatised. Whenever I told people that was my team, I would get the same degree of abuse and condemnation. The people in my school made me feel embarrassed to support a team other than stereotypical ‘top-six’ clubs in the Premier League. This was despite the fact that most of the people who mocked me had never been to a live game in their life and supported their chosen team to chase inflated, egotistical dreams of glory to use as bragging rights in the playground.
When even your name has huge stigma attached to it, you detach yourself from anything regarding a belief system, character traits and idiosyncrasies that could be associated with you. Even positive labels you shun, desperate to avoid another form of ammunition being used against you.
It took me years to accept a compliment at face-value and not think there was some sinister, double-meaning behind it (I still struggle with them now). It also took me a long time to understand that when I wasn’t invited to a party or night out that maybe they had just forgotten to invite me or the person in question didn’t view me in their close list of friends, it wasn’t a personal slight to me.
Everything seemed like there was some sort of plot behind it because for the previous 9 years, that had been the case or had seemed the case in my eyes, such was the level of paranoia I had over walking into groups only for them to fall silent. I had massive anxiety over even the smallest and most basic things because of the emotional trauma that had been previously done to me.
The days of constantly looking over my shoulder and social humiliation may have been over but the mental ticks that the scars brought about took a long time to subside and hugely stunted my emotional maturity, despite the fact that my behavioural maturity was more advanced.
However, to this day, my ‘spider-sense’ still pricks up when someone mentions my name in a conversation I’m not privy to at work or amongst friends. That same sense of dread and trepidation about what might follow still exists. It’s a safety mechanism that I used to run away from potentially dangerous situations at school but now refuses to leave my consciousness willingly.
Thankfully, by my third year of university, most of these scars had disappeared. I had gone from the bottom of the proverbial social ladder, hated by most people and unpopular to everyone, to loved by at least a good chunk of people, invited to most social occasions and had a large group of people I could call my friends.
However, what transpired at the start of third year was an identity crisis I had never experienced before. Some of you might be thinking, ‘how could he have an identity crisis at 21?’.
It was hugely unfortunate for me and dangerous that this identity crisis coincided with me coming to terms with my own mental health issues. I slowly realised that these feelings were not going to go away, they were something I had that I needed to get control over and improve.
Firstly, I was having suicidal thoughts. I walked past my bathroom cabinet one day and was tempted to empty the collection of pills contained within it, ingest them and try and kill myself, like I had done when I tried to take my own life for the first time in Year 9.
A week or so later, I then had a mental breakdown in the middle of a seminar.
Luckily, my close friend Tilly was with me when it happened, asked me what was wrong by communicating with me through text under the table as the incident completely muted me, took me to the University mental health centre and the rest is history.
During that period though, the identity crisis that unfolded within my head was something I’ve never been able to articulate until now, such was the impact it had on me. I lost all sense of who I was, why I existed and what purpose I had in life. I didn’t know what I added to the world by being in it and questioned what, if anything, I was actually known for.
I was texting the girls in my social group, asking them questions like “what do I even contribute to our group?” and telling them that I didn’t know who I was anymore. Was I just playing up to the characteristics people assumed of me? Was I just this simplistic, extroverted loud-mouth or was I more than just a parodied, caricature?
If it wasn’t for the replies they sent me which I still remember to this day, who knows where I would be right now? Maybe I wouldn’t be on this earth. At the time, their kind-hearted compliments washed over me like vacuous waves of compassion as I was too damaged and hollow to be able to recognise the good I had within myself and the person that I was.
Looking back, they helped me more than they could ever know and I will always treasure the way they reached out to me. On the next night out we had, everyone I was with immediately asked me how I was, made sure I felt comfortable around them and just let me be tranquil and calm at the pre-drinks. They didn’t put pressure on me to ‘perform’, they just let me do what I felt comfortable doing in that social environment at the time.
With every article I write, a piece of my soul becomes that much more repaired and the comfort I feel within myself grows. However, there are still scars that will take years or even decades to heal. To this day, I still subconsciously self-deprecate when talking about myself so I can pre-empt someone’s criticism as a defence mechanism. I find it difficult to talk positively about myself because historically people have thought, either through ignorance or deliberate malice in mistaking my extroverted nature for arrogance.
My self-esteem is still extremely low. Unfortunately, even if I got to a stage of complete ‘contentment’ in life, I don’t think it would be drastically higher. This is despite the fact that my belief in my professional ability is extremely high. One reason this might be the case is with work, your abilities and achievements are quantifiable. If you are good at your job, you tend to know it otherwise you wouldn’t be in it, right?
I know I’m a capable communications professional and I have the experience and skills to back it up if questioned about it. My mind has the ability to repel any self-doubt around it and instead focuses on trying to improve day-by-day, learn from the mistakes I make and maintain that ambitious streak that has got me to this position in the first place.
However, in my personal life there are fewer processes I can refer back to or tangible achievements I can use to feel better about myself.
It’s something I’ll learn to live with and probably normal for people with severe and complex mental health issues. The good news is that my identity remains intact and is one which is celebrated by my friends instead of reviled.
I realised when writing this article that not everyone can relate to this piece but I hope that if one person is going through a similar experience now to what I went through, then I want them to know that they are not alone.
Surround yourself with supportive and kind friends, let them help you through whatever bad period of mental health you’re going through and eventually, with time, it will get better.
It’s Okay To Vent.
Freddie Cocker is the Founder of Vent.
You can read more articles like this in our Experiences section.