I am a woman, aged 28, and at the beginning of my 20s, as a student, I lived in a big city with my boyfriend. I had, I thought, escaped the drama and pain of a difficult childhood and was making it as an independent adult.
Now, at the end of my 20s, I feel that all the progress I have made as an individual has been reversed. When I finished my studies I had to come back to my home country, and the only work I’ve been able to get is low-paid call-centre work. My relationship has ended. I have been obliged to move back in with my parents because my salary is so low and because, last year, I had a major depressive breakdown, and could not take care of myself.
During this time I met a man and fell in love. He seemed to be the only light in my life, representing everything I had wanted – a creative, independent, passionate life. I wanted my whole life to be folded into his. A few weeks ago, he ended it and now I feel I am going off the deep end.
I am tormented by a pronounced sense of inadequacy and shame. I feel that I have no identity, because everything I predicated this identity on – my creative life, my studies, my friendships, my love-relationships – has disappeared. I have always been the black sheep of my, essentially dysfunctional, family, and have little in common with them. They have tried to be patient with me during my breakdown, but my dominant feeling now is that everyone is sick of me and wishes I would buck up and get out of the family home.
I want this more than anything too, but I am struggling to concentrate and have periodic “freak-outs” where I do impulsive things. Every day of the week I have a new idea for escape.
In the midst of this, I seem to have lost the ability to be comfortable around people. I think my friends, most of who I have little left in common with, are frightened by my behaviour and distance themselves. I find social situations stressful and have begun to avoid them.
People tell me I am “stuck in a moment” and that it will pass, but I see no evidence of this. Fixing the mess seems beyond me, but I am on my own and, I think, so obviously flailing and needy that it deters other people.
I thought there was one very telling word in your letter: “all the progress I have made as an individual.” As opposed to what?
I contacted Helen Morgan, a psychoanalytical psychotherapist (bpc.org.uk). One of the things she identified may be at the absolute core of your issues and it is that you seek your identity outside of yourself. “I wondered,” says Morgan, “if you located your identity in others to replace something you feel is lacking inside yourself? Resolving this would be about a process of discovery of who you really are through exploration within a good therapeutic relationship.”
We all have external things that “make us us” or that give us more confidence, but it shouldn’t be where all of us is located. But at the heart of your letter is that you’re constantly looking for things outside of yourself: to validate yourself, give you reason, definition – and this makes you vulnerable.
This could be connected to your childhood – you talk about your difficult childhood and dysfunctional family home but don’t go into further details. We wonder if, given this, being back at home is really the best place for you – are you being looked after there? Is there anywhere else you could live? Was going home for pure practicality, an act of masochism or were you trying to get what you never got there growing up?
Morgan feels that you have, in your last relationship, sought “something total. A father? A rescue? What you wanted to be yourself?” This is a lot to ask of someone else. I was keen to know more about that last relationship because it seems to have triggered something: what did that relationship replay?
“What echoes throughout your letter is that you want someone to help you,” says Morgan.
You have tried doctors and counsellors, but I did wonder what sort of help you’d had. Cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, probably won’t help much here. Is there another GP you can try at the surgery?
I know how hard it is to keeping knocking on a door for help when you feel desperate and rebuffed, but you are deserving of proper help and support. Some therapists will offer sliding-scale fees and Morgan also thinks you might look into group therapy – as that may benefit you and be cheaper (groupanalysis.org).
The fact that you left home to study and made a success of your life should give you some comfort. I do believe that, with proper support, you can start to unravel yourself from this and start to slowly rebuild who you are. Most people struggle at some point in their lives, it’s not a case of you being a mess and everyone else a success.
In your longer letter, you talked about suicidal thoughts, which I take seriously. I don’t know where you live but please look at these links: samaritans.org; mind.org; sane.org.uk/what_we_do/support; together-uk.org
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 25 June 2016.