A few months ago, I went through an identity crisis. Again. The first one was when I was becoming ill; when I was losing so many parts of myself to my illnesses. This crisis, however, was different.
I’d come to a point in my chronic illness recovery (or whatever the heck you want to call it) in which I looked and acted absolutely fine to the outside viewer. But then I started feeling better, and thus looking better. That was because I could do a lot more than I was able to a year ago (ie. go to work every day instead of missing many days of school in college, walk and stand for longer periods of time, drive more frequently, be out and about in the world more). Yet, I almost felt more out of the loop and isolated than ever.
When I got really sick, I felt like it was noticeable. I stopped hanging out with friends as often, I didn’t go to as many of my classes, I stopped exercising, etc. But here in California, the new people I encountered didn’t know who I was or what I could do before my illnesses took hold. I was the only one carrying around that heavy bucket of grief for my old abilities while they silently went on with their lives, naïve to my recent struggles. I saw people with the energy I used to have, that awe and excitement for life I used to possess, and everyone around me eating all the food I used to eat but no longer can.
It’s like I was living in a world where everyone around me kept moving and going and rushing off to every other important meeting they must attend and thing they need to do and place they want to go and I’m just there standing in the middle of the chaos wondering what the hell is happening.
It was round two of identity crisis for Melanie. Since as a society, we attach so much of our identity and self-worth to what we do/what we can do, who are we when our physical and/or mental capabilities keep changing? Am I the person who loved rock climbing and running and drinking beer? I’ve spent so much time wishing and waiting for the day I could cross those lost items off my list that I didn’t stop to wonder if those activities, those hobbies, those likes– are they even still me? Am I all these things that I need to recover from before, or am I someone new and different?
Although I’m not entirely sure of who I am or exactly what I like to do, I feel like I will be able to find a semi-solid base to rest instead of this ever-changing gaseous path I keep stepping on and slipping through.
In the meantime, here are some things I do to help calm myself down when I feel like Melanie is a far away person who I only distantly know:
1. Define your boundaries and limitations.
I highly recommend reading this blog post by Stronger Than POTS about setting boundaries. It focuses on toxic family members, but I used it to outline my own boundaries in general. It’s long but worth it, so I’d recommend setting aside some time to read it once through and then re-read it while following the steps she outlines.
By defining my boundaries and seeing my physical and mental limitations written down, I have a better idea of my reality and essentially, what I have to work with. My expectations sometimes run away from me, so this helped me to see myself for who I am, chronic illness and all.
For example, I tend to have an energy crash if I walk more than 10,000 steps per day (a physical limitation), so if I ever want to do an activity that requires more than 10,000 steps that day, I know I need to do it in my wheelchair. I used to like walking around to a lot of places, but if I kept doing that, I’d be sick all the time. So realistically, I know I am a person who uses a wheelchair part-time. And now that’s part of my identity.
2. Write down what you like.
Along with defining my boundaries and limitations, when I’m feeling lost, I’ve been physically writing down things I like. I used to include things I used to be able to do but no longer can. However, that just makes me sad again. So now, I write down things I like or like to do without judgement or past influence. I ask myself, “What do I like or like to do right here and now?” I don’t write down things I liked to do in Fort Collins when I was in college or things I used to be able to do like drink beer or run. I write down things I like now, such as music and cool colors (as in, blue, purple, and green lol), and what I can do now, like play with my dogs and ride my recumbent bike. By writing down and seeing what I like and can do, I have a better idea of who I am.
3. List out personality traits and qualities.
Now it’s time to talk about the intangibles; the things that make us who we are but are harder to define. These are the things that are essential for people with chronic illnesses to remember, because what we can do and what we like to do are not always synchronous.
Just like I did above, I jotted down on a piece of paper all the personality traits or qualities that I felt make up who I am. I actually sometimes prefer doing this because I can see who I am no matter my physical state. No matter if I can run or am confined to bed, I still am these core things. In other words, these things change the least, which reassures me. They remind me that I am still me at the end of the day.
Helpful questions to get you thinking:
What words would I use to describe myself to a stranger?
What are some words my friends or family would use to describe me?
What qualities can I use to make an impact on the world?
What traits do I use to navigate my everyday life?
If you need a little more help, I suggest Googling “personality traits” and loads of lists will pop up.
Like the above exercise, try to focus on qualities and traits you actually posses in this time in your life. This isn’t supposed to be a list of things you wish you were like or things you were in the past. This is who you are right now. And remember to try to focus on qualities that speak to your strengths. No need to write down your weaknesses.
Optional: Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator tests
Although sometimes controversial, I personally really like the Meyers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) and similar tests, mainly because I feel like I really relate to my type and reading articles about my strengths and weaknesses resonate with me and help me understand myself better. But even if you don’t feel like your MBTI type is a good fit, just going through the motions of answering the questions may be helpful for you to understand yourself better.
Here is a website where you can take the test. The description at the end is just okay; it’s sufficient but it doesn’t go into too much detail. Googling your type once you’re finished is helpful so you can get a more well-rounded idea of your personality. I’ve only explored my MBTI type (INFJ), so if you have the same/similar type, you might want to check out Introvert, Dear (for all introvert types), INFJ Blog, or INFJ Ramblings.
I’ve outgrown some things. I’ve shed another layer. Maybe I’ll cut my hair again (lol probably not). I didn’t really anticipate another identity crisis after feeling so lost about who I was once my physical abilities were drastically reduced, but with these exercises, I hope I can get a better idea of who I am when I feel lost in the future (because this probably isn’t the last time it’ll happen).
I am someone different because of my chronic illnesses. They’ve changed the course of my life and thus has changed who I am. Even though I may feel lost sometimes, grounding myself and recognizing who I am helps me cope so I can move forward and fully enjoy all life has to offer//