“It’s not what I thought.”
That’s what 25 year-old Danny Rand said, the main hero of Marvel’s Netflix show Iron Fist, when he finally passed the test he’d spent most of his life training for. After apparently killing a dragon, he was endowed with a pretty neat super power, and entrusted with the title of the “Immortal Iron Fist” by the elders of his mystical community, Kun L’un.
Pretty soon afterwards, he becomes disillusioned, and abandons his duty of protecting Kun L’un, to try and find his purpose elsewhere, away from the disappointment, and the emptiness of his new life. As a child, dreaming of the life ahead of him, he saw one thing, but now that he has it, it’s not what he expected.
I’ll be honest, the show wasn’t that great, but I would have to agree with Danny. Now that I’ve reached a significant new chapter of my life, in turning 25, I would say the same thing.
It’s not what I expected.
When I was 18, finishing my HSC, and ready to take on the world, I didn’t even fathom what the next 7 years would hold. I didn’t know the trouble that was ahead of me.
It was harder than I ever could have conceived. I couldn’t have known what was ahead, and if I did, like Jonah in the Bible, I would have run away from my calling. “Anything but that, God. I can’t do that, it is too hard, and I’m not the right person. Send someone else.”
I never expected my early 20s to be so hard – to have so many unexpected struggles and sources of pain. I’ve learned things about myself that I didn’t want to know. Some of my experiences have caused scars that are still healing. I didn’t realise how deeply troubled my mind was, how much depression, anxiety and low self-esteem were going to cripple my whole outlook on the world. I didn’t expect to be diagnosed with a chronic illness, and how lonely that road was going to be. My life has been a tsunami of chaos for many years, with waves crashing on every side, with wars on every front.
I know that’s extremely depressing, but it is true. It’s not what I expected. But thankfully, it hasn’t stayed that way. Now, at 25, life is finally starting to change, at a deep level. The waves have now started to calm, for the first time since as long as I can remember.
Waking up now as a 25 year-old, my life is now better than it’s ever been. And this didn’t happen by accident.
So what happened? What is it about being 25 that has made the difference?
Well, if I am honest, probably nothing. Nothing about reaching this number has really changed anything. That’s exactly the point – it’s not about what has happened to me, or around me. It’s about the person that I’m becoming, the person that these waves have made me into.
It started with a kind of “quarter-life crisis”. Halfway through 2016 I found myself at another low point. I was unemployed, sick, depressed, and with a lot of time to think about my life. During that time, I began to realise that most of the problems in my life were following a pattern. I began to realise that the waves of chaos I was experiencing were mostly coming from the same places. With the help of counsellors, some close friends, and a bit of reflection, I began to make some resolutions to start moving forward in my life. In particular, I made two main resolutions that encompassed all the others.
It was these:
- I am responsible for my own life, my faith, and my mental health.
- I am not morally responsible for the actions or lives of anyone else.
This might sound overly cliche or simple, but it was truly life-changing for me. In practice, it really transformed my whole life, especially my mental health.
It helped me start to develop a healthier sense of self-respect. It helped me to start taking better care of my health, without feeling guilty about it. It helped me to heal from what I realised had been some kinds of emotional trauma. It helped me to correct my incredibly cynical and bitterly negative view of the world.
Above all, it made me re-evaluate what kind of person I wanted to be, and what kind of life I really wanted to live.
I came to realise that my biggest mistake, which had caused so much chaos in my life, was getting those two points mixed up: neglecting my personal faith, ignoring my mental health needs, and letting my life be consumed by the problems of other people.
It meant that my life was constantly in a state of crisis, filled with drama, and never really getting anywhere beyond the pits of depression.
Honest to God
Before realising this, I thought that because I was a Christian that I mostly had it all figured out. I had been to every Bible study and I knew all the answers. But I was more of a mess than I ever would have admitted. Even though I could tick all the boxes, I had never really learned the absolute basics of being an emotionally healthy person.
And as I look around today, if I’m honest, I think that when it comes to understanding mental health, many of my Christian friends really aren’t that different to my friends that aren’t Christians. My Christian friends might have the right doctrine, but in the real world their lives are just as filled with the same kinds of depression and anxiety, and one reason could be that deep down we actually fall into believing the same lies about ourselves, and about the world.
Of course, mental health is never that simple or one-size-fits-all, but if I had to throw a dart at one target, I would pick this – lies. Lies we believe about ourselves, and the world.
Here’s some examples of some lies that I’ve believed in my own life, and I see people everywhere believing:
- We believe that, without our partners, our careers or our mortgages, we are basically worthless.
- We believe that we need other people to “complete us”, and that it is the duty of other people to fulfil our own emotional needs – our (current or future) partner, husband, wife, or friend.
- We believe that living a chaotic lifestyle and feeling emotionally burned out all the time is just a normal part of life.
- We deny the fact that we have any kind of control or power over our own lives, to change anything.
- We take it upon ourselves to “fix” other people at whatever cost.
- We desperately crave the approval and acceptance of other people before we can have any kind of self-esteem.
- We spend our lives ruminating on how others have hurt us in the past, and so we put up walls between us and other people so that we can’t get hurt again.
- We become anxious at the thought of being ourselves, because we believe that if we were ever vulnerable again, that we would be rejected.
- We want to stand by our convictions, but we feel that they need to be validated by everyone else’s approval before they can actually be true.
Nobody ever taught me this stuff. I learned it the hard way. And I could write hundreds more, that have directly affected me, and people I care about – for years, if not decades, or more.
So, once I realised what the deeper problems really were, it made me wake up to myself, and really – really – start to change. I had to unlearn so much about what I thought the world was like. Just like Dr Strange, I had to “forget everything you think you know”. And after so many years of falling on my face and getting everything wrong, I started to finally see some genuine change.
I had to relearn a few basic lessons about being emotionally healthy. So I made a few more resolutions.
- I refuse to make excuses, and let anyone or anything get in the way of what is most important – my personal walk with God, my mental health, my personal relationships.
- I refuse to allow toxic people to drag me down into constant depression and anxiety.
- I refuse to keep hating, criticising and judging myself, because I’m a person who God loves, and who Jesus died to save.
- I refuse to make excuses for my self-care, because I’m the only one responsible for my actions and health.
- I refuse to become anxious about problems that other people are responsible to fix.
- I refuse to be overly concerned about what others think, because my self-worth doesn’t hinge on their approval.
- I refuse to tolerate being disrespected, dismissed, bullied or intimidated – or tolerate it when I see it being done to anyone else.
- I commit to living my life with a clear conscience before God.
- I commit to allocating at least some time for activities that I love, simply because I love them.
- But I commit to avoiding any kind of extra activities or responsibilities that will get in the way of what is most important.
- I commit to letting go of bitterness and resentment towards those who have hurt me (almost always unintentionally).
- I commit to accepting the limits to my body and my energy, and not feel guilty when I can’t do something that everyone else seems to be able to do.
- I commit to getting help when I need it – counselling, supportive friends, or just stepping away to get my head straight.
- I commit to ride the waves of depression and doubt, and move forward out of the cess pool of guilt when I feel like I’ve screwed everything up.
And what was the result?
Well, for the first time in half a decade, I was genuinely happy. I found that the negativity that had poisoned my mind for so long wasn’t actually part of the real me. Negativity and depression was not a part of my soul, or my character. It was just a kind of mental virus that had taken over my mind throughout all of the negative experiences that I’d been through. It was a poison that fed on my hurt and pain, and with every struggle I faced it felt more and more like it was a part of me.
But underneath that poison was the real me. The real me was confident, strong, positive, resilient, joyful, and assertive. And after years of being asleep, that person was finally waking up. It was all a bit like Neo being unplugged from the Matrix. I was rediscovering the person who God created me to be. I was remembering who I really was, and what really mattered.
This wasn’t an easy change, and it didn’t happen overnight. It took many months of quiet, many days and nights of tears, a lot of journaling, a lot of prayer, a lot of support from loved ones. But each month saw a few steps forward, and every step was away from the darkness and into the light.
As a result of seeking to live these out, life became better than I ever thought it could be. The person who I thought would always be miserable until the grave began to slowly disappear, and the real me became clearer every day, every week, every month.
My two little “babies” were born out of that time. One was my love for composing weird music. And the other was this blog, Grace for Failures, as I explored what it meant to pursue a full life after years of failure (and ongoing mistakes).
Now that I’ve reached another life milestone, at age 25, I can look back again with hindsight. Sadly, most of what I see is a lot of regret, frustration and disappointment. But instead of becoming bitter about that, with anger and resentment (as I used to be), now I am learning from these experiences, as I aim to move forward, to all the rich fullness and wonder of life that looks to be ahead of me.
This is a new season of life that is presenting new challenges that I’ve never faced before, and some days I have no idea what I’m doing. Yet now, I’m happier than I think I’ve ever been, I’m stronger and healthier than I was, and every day, I’m pitching my tent one day closer to heaven, where God will show me how every piece of this puzzle fit together to fulfil his plans and purposes in me, and through me in the world.
This life is a journey, and it looks to me like I’m just getting started. The little things don’t seem to matter as much any more, because now that I have a bit of hindsight, I know that the waves won’t stop me from reaching my home.
Grace for Failures is the blog of Carlin Doyle, to encourage and inspire those who have gotten life wrong for a long time, and want to try and do things a little differently. Click here for more info, and here for more posts.