I recently finished reading John O’Brien’s 1990 novel Leaving Las Vegas (there is also a film and a song of the same name), about how two people – a sex worker and an alcoholic – struggle to cope with toxic, yet familiar, patterns of existence because there just doesn’t seem to be any other way of living out their lives. I was interested in this theme because it’s similar to one I come across in counselling quite often, in a variety of forms.
Many of us can find ourselves stuck at some point in a pattern of living that feels unfulfilling and yet impossible to break out of. We might also find ourselves surrendering to certain situations out of a sense of personal obligation or a need to fulfill a compulsive drive, one that might ultimately prove to be less than helpful to us. Possibly too we might sense that if we don’t stick with these situations we have failed in some way, or we might feel that moving on from the familiar will expose us to an uncertainty that we just can’t face. This might apply to an unfulfilling career, for example, or any oppressive living situation or personal relationship.
It can be hard to determine when a particular life course has exhausted its real value to us, or when a relationship is becoming toxic. So how can we feel safe enough to take the risk of moving on? Does it have to be in the lap of the gods or can we make it happen for ourselves?
To address these questions it can help to look at the psychology behind major life changes, or what James Fowler in Faithful Change describes as ‘the texture of transitions’. He explains that recognition of the need to change can arise from ‘the realisation that many of the ways one has been living no longer make sense’. A key stage Fowler identifies in this change process is endings.
As part of this process we must first disengage from the familiar that has contributed to our sense of who we are and learn to define ourselves differently. Fowler says that we must then come to terms with ‘the loss of some part of our previous constructions of reality’. Then in the last stage of the ending process we face disorientation, where we feel lost and try to absorb the impact of the change before we can eventually start new beginnings.
There is much here in common with the grieving process, and in a sense grieving is part of what we do when we experience significant life change. Learning to appreciate our inherent value as individuals is also a key task for us here. These are challenging psychological processes.
It may not have worked out so well for the protagonists in O’Brien’s novel but, by gaining a true appreciation of our value and the reality of our situation, moving on to greater fulfilment is possible.