26th November 2017.
A little over six months ago I met someone who, within moments, would turn into one of my dearest friends. Principally based in Qatar, we’d shared correspondence over the preceding year-or-so and immediately recognised that, despite our physical differences – location, age, familial situation and so-forth – there was something about our character, our struggles and our shared passion that ensured we soon forged a strong bond. To that end, at our first meeting in London he offered me a piece of advice that not only deeply resonated at the time, but has been a go-to every single day subsequently. Eight simple words, fused together to form the powerful sentiment that he knew I desperately needed to hear. “Do not measure yourself by someone else’s ruler.”
Earlier this month when visiting my dad he produced this photo of me that he’d recently unearthed. It was a few seconds before I even began to recognise who the little boy in the image was; it was 1994 and this was my very first school photograph! I looked into the eyes of four-year-old Nathan and pitifully thought, “If only you knew what was ahead…” He looks happy – and I’m sure he was – but I know that that happiness wouldn’t last. Beginning as soon as a year or two later, he would enter into a near-quarter-of-a-century defined by self-harm, self-doubt, depression, anxiety and failure. I didn’t recognise the smile, the innocence; I cannot recall a time in my childhood when I felt happy enough to let out an audible laugh. Now, I’m in no doubt that I did – I know that there were times of joy, but those fond memories are so blurred they have virtually disappeared. I uploaded the photo to a social media feed (seemingly a necessity in this age!) and, with little thought, captioned it thus, ‘Before it all became too difficult. With each passing day I feel less assured that I was meant for this world.’
Since I’ve been capable of cognitive thought and self-reflection one of the most pronounced questions that I asked myself is whether or not I am good enough, worthy enough. Have I done enough? Have I given enough? Am I enough? As I’m sure is evident, this self-doubt has been a continual thread through my life, a thread which has intensified and, yes, occasionally subsided, over the course of the past twenty-plus years, yet nevertheless has remained ever-present. I have written about this self-criticism before, as well as the constant intense questioning by which it is accompanied. An angle that I am yet to discuss in detail, however, is one that is centred on failure. In recent weeks I have been forced to acknowledge my failures and seemingly vast inadequacies and how they have contributed to my longstanding sense of worthlessness.
Since childhood I have been guilty of not coping with failure well. No – maybe not “failure” per se, more the prospect of failure. I’ve always insisted that I cannot be average, mediocre – I have never had that “oh that’ll do” mentality. If I attribute my name to something I have to ensure that it garners all of my attention; producing something substandard, or doing something incorrectly always filled me with dread. I suppose this is rooted in my schoolwork. I’d been badly bullied from a young age, always felt isolated and excluded from my peers, but as long as I excelled in the classroom – as long as one aspect of my life was a success – I could deal with everything else that was going wrong around me. I may have spent my lunch-hour sat alone crying in the cloakroom, but once that hour was over I’d be “top-of-the-class.” It was okay, I had a purpose! All the pain was worth something. This continued when I first started to self-harm, continued throughout my parents’ divorce, continued when I first starting exhibiting signs of depression in my early teens. Indeed, even when I had my first “episode” (I’m always reluctant to use the word “breakdown”) and was in counselling I graduated from university with a First Class Degree. I yearn to achieve again. I yearn to find that purpose again. Without a purpose I am, surely, nothing but an unattractive burden, an insignificant failure.
For the past nine years, before, during and now post-university I have worked in the retail industry, indeed the same job (admittedly with some progression and increased responsibility). I recently worked out that in that time I’ve seen over one hundred people come and go, one hundred people leave and enter into the next stages of their lives. And I’ve been there, every time, to welcome, to train, to encourage and then to bid farewell … to be left. I maintain that working with the public (in any capacity) is one of the most challenging things – you can’t do right for doing wrong, for every twenty truly nasty customers you might get two who are civil and one you’d actively describe as “nice”! With experience comes confidence and if you were to ask me if I were more, let’s say, “capable” now than before I entered into the world of work I would offer a most definite “yes.” I may have been in the midst of depression, upstairs in the toilet slicing my legs with a compass, or trying to get myself out of a panic attack, but when I came into the public domain I not only performed, but I did my job and I did it well. I pride myself on giving my all when I’m at work – no one could accuse me of shirking. I work extremely hard and I would challenge anyone who says otherwise. One might say that, when necessary, I’ve developed a heightened resilience – I can “block out” (to a degree) my inner turmoil. I remind you of the crying-in-the-cloakroom scenario at school. I at least had my work. If I were succeeding here I wasn’t a total failure.
Without going into too much unnecessary detail, something happened within the past two weeks that assured me that, actually, I was a total failure. Over the preceding week I’d worked myself to the point of absolute exhaustion – I’d actually arrived home after work one evening and passed out. When you give all that you can possibly give, when go above-and-beyond only to be told that you’re still not good enough, what more can you do? Is there anything else to physically, and mentally, give? I had nothing. And, again, I had no one. All of my previous failings and shortcomings, all of my feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy came rushing back, eradicating any sense of hope. Previous attempts at applying for work experience in my dream industry had ended in failure – am I going to still be working in a minimum wage job and unable to drive when I’m forty? Am I destined to be forever single, never to experience romance or love…destined to live and home and beg friends to be able to spend time with them? How could I ever read an autocue if I can’t even have a conversation with a friend without stammering? How could I look at myself on-screen when I am often repulsed by my appearance? I was suddenly paralysed. Is this “my lot”? Is there any point in carrying on in a life unfulfilled? Once more, I was giving up on happiness. Living with depression and anxiety is exhausting, I couldn’t see how I could go on when it sometimes takes all of my energy just to function. I was an abject failure, and I couldn’t see a time when that wouldn’t be the case.
Anyone who knows me will be aware that I have a passion for journalism and something of a fascination with the medium of broadcast news. I find myself, therefore, frequently attempting to live vicariously through those who I admire deeply and wish to emulate. To that end, I found myself re-watching an interview with the veteran American journalist and broadcaster Jane Pauley in which she discusses her career stemming from being a reporter for a local TV station in Indianapolis to becoming the youngest co-host of NBC’s national morning news programme, Today (a story that, no matter how many times I hear it, never fails to excite and enthral me). From this I stumbled across a short clip of her discussing the subject of failure in which she says, “Please do not fear failure. Embrace it, be proud of it. With every failure you’re learning more about not why you’re such a loser – what you’re learning is, ‘that didn’t work because…'” This struck a chord with me, and, coupled with the advice of my dear friend (who also happens to be a successful broadcast journalist) about not measuring yourself against others I began to emerge, once again, from the blackness and ask myself how one measures, indeed how one should measure, success. I haven’t yet found the answer, and, yes, I am still really struggling with feelings of inadequacy. The fact that I am even asking the question, though, gives me some encouragement, some hope that I will, once again succeed.
Each day I live I want to be a day to give the best of me. I’m only one, but not alone. My finest day is yet unknown … I’ve lived to be the very best. I want it all, no time for less … Then in that one moment in time, I will be free.