Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing | Aphantasia

Anxiety, identity and self-image

Blurry double image of a man in a dark t-shirt, surrounded by bright red and yellow
Photo by Nicolas Ladino Silva on Unsplash

In 2011, the job I’d been working in for the previous 18 years was coming to an end. Though it was part-time it had been my main source of income for most of those years. (I’d also been studying part-time, first for a Bachelor’s in English lit and then, since 1997 on a PhD thesis which I eventually completed under the title “Andrew Marvell’s ambivalence about justice”.) I decided to treat the end of my job as the signal that it was time, at last, to go back to Ireland. I’d been looking forward to my return home, and expecting to enjoy it. My actual reaction took me completely by surprise.

That reaction can best be described as a visceral sense that I really shouldn’t be here and that I needed to get out as fast as possible. I recognize it now, some 6 years later, as an impulse towards flight but at the time I had no idea what to make of it. It wasn’t at all how I expected to feel about being “home” after 24 years away. For the first time in more than 20 years, I was dealing with a set of emotions which seemed completely at odds with my circumstances and wholly impervious to rational argument. I tried to remonstrate with my feelings but they paid no attention and just continued on their own sweet way.

Since my sessions with the psychologist at the beginning of this year, I’ve come to see that my difficulties were primarily the result of anxiety. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to make a living, find another job, be able to live in a part of Ireland that I found tolerable and so on. But, not recognizing that anxiety was at the root of my difficulties, I remained baffled by my strange response to being back.

The best suggestion that I could come up with was that I might be undergoing an identity crisis. As I explained to the therapist, when I left Ireland in the late 80s, I had some kind of sense of who I was: a practising solicitor, a married man and (I’d fondly imagined) a revolutionary socialist theorist. Coming back 24 years later I was none of these things and I wasn’t sure what (if anything) I had replaced them with. The therapist didn’t buy it. I hadn’t enunciated those terms — solicitor, husband, socialist — with any degree of conviction. In invoking them, I wasn’t describing something I actually felt.

On this, I think that the therapist was only half right. It was true that these aspects of identity (if it’s accurate to call them that) were never things that I strongly identified with, but that’s not to deny that they were important components of my idea of who I was. I might constantly have had to remind myself: “this is what I do”, “this is what I believe” but the fact that I did have to remind myself is proof that this self-conception was important to me. I was cognitively (or, as I would have put it at the time, intellectually) aware that I filled these roles, even though I might not feel a deep attachment to them. I didn’t consciously think of them as my “identity” but, looking back, it seemed to me that they had performed that function.

At least 12 or 13 years ago, I remarked to a good friend of mine that I just didn’t get the whole idea of identity. I didn’t understand what people were talking about. He responded, as you’d expect, that as a straight, white, European male, I didn’t need a sense of identity. And that was true, of course, but I wasn’t really satisfied that it was the whole truth. I know quite a few Irish people (European by definition, and a substantial proportion of whom are also straight, white and male) who at least claim to feel a strong sense of Irish identity. I’ve observed evidence of similar feelings among Englishmen, Frenchmen and others. Being straight, white, European and male isn’t, so far as I can tell, any bar to having a sense of identity even though it may mean that such a sense can more easily be dispensed with.

For reasons I’ll look at more closely in my next post, I’ve recently found myself wondering if the apparent absence in my case of a sense of identity (or at best only a weak sense) might be connected to my lack of a visual self-image. That’s a question I want to look at in relation to a particular aspect of identity in my next post.