This is not something that you can prepare for nor predict, only anticipate. An identity crisis is many things, and triggers different vulnerabilities in everyone—creeping up when you least expect it and teasing out those little pieces of yourself that you’d like to pretend don’t exist. It’s one of those life-altering shifts that you don’t realize are happening until you are right in the middle of it, totally encompassed by its wildness.
Throughout the last year, I watched my partner of five years go through what is playfully coined a quarter-life crisis.
This type of crisis, which usually happens during critical transition points in our lives, is just that: A crisis, a panic, a complete destruction of all that we have ever known ourselves to be. And slowly, over the course of a year, I watched a man who I’ve confidently grown to know as a sweet, ambitious daydreamer become unrecognizable and utterly lost. And there is nothing more terrifying than watching someone you love spiral into a deep abyss fraught with anxiety, depression, and despair, knowing that there is almost nothing you can do.
My partner used one word to describe his inner chaos, a word that I feel sums up the frenetic energy of his actions and his emotional state—reckless.
It still gives me chills to think of the first time he used the word to describe what he was going through, where he had gone, where he was going. And now, on the other end of this crisis, I see just how all-encompassing this recklessness can be.
He approached most days with emotional abandon—smoking and drinking more while distracting himself with as many activities and projects as possible, becoming avoidant and neglectful of our relationship and himself. He tried to leave me twice, convincing himself he was doing me a favor. And maybe he would have been, but relationships are never so simple. I knew him well enough to see that it was not untethered independence that he wanted, but instead to isolate himself from those who would hold a mirror up and make him ask himself, “Who am I?”
I could never impart the eeriness of having the person you love look into your eyes and tell you all the benefits of splitting up, living alone, abandoning all the plans you’ve made—having completely convinced themselves that this is the only way to move forward. All you can do is nod, ask why, and wait. I didn’t always wait, though. I would point out how he was lying to himself and to me; I would draw attention to the ways in which he was running away. And while oftentimes he would agree, other times he’d run further away. But he always ended each conversation with how much he loved me, and how sad he felt.
And this is why I chose not to leave him—I knew that it was not me he was pushing away, but pieces of himself and who he saw himself becoming, as if he had already reached his greatest potential with nothing to show for it. The idea of leaving my partner when he had fallen to his worst didn’t make sense to me—I didn’t want to let this chaos so easily break what we had worked so hard to build.
If I have learned anything in the five years we’ve been together it’s that you don’t leave when it’s hard, you leave when you know you’ve tried your best. And, in hindsight, I am glad that I stayed, for our relationship has become stronger—we communicate better, spend better time together, and are more aware of how our actions affect one another. Though, admittedly, such a decision is never so simple, nor is staying always the right choice. What’s worse is that our experience is not unique—most people, and couples, experience this type of crisis at one time or another. And it can be the make it or break it point of many relationships.
As I navigate my mid-twenties, surrounded by so many bright, motivated, terrified people who are also wading through the murky waters of their mid-twenties, the only question I can ask is this: Why don’t we talk about it? Why do we avoid it, pretend we aren’t struggling, and choose only to highlight our achievements for others to see while we ignore them ourselves?
When my partner went through this crisis, I didn’t just passively observe his anxieties consume him. I was right there, both as a bystander and as a companion.
I was forced to ask myself the same questions I was asking him, trying to identify who I was and what I was doing in the midst of his crisis. It became a shared chaos, both immensely isolating and unifying in its dreadfulness. But we’re lucky; we made it out the other side—for the better.
Kellie is a seasoned author and has been previously featured in Conscious Magazine. Her favorite book is The Garden of Eden by Hemingway and her favorite TV shows include Twin Peaks, Broad City, and Game of Thrones. She enjoys the immersive experience of being a creative.