Why I Had To Break Through My “Sick Identity” Before I Could Start Healing

I’m back from a refreshing solo vacation where I swam in the ocean, read on the beach and meditated under palm trees. It was exactly what I needed, but it almost didn’t happen.

After a severe concussion in 2013, I became dependent on the people around me. I couldn’t bear any stimuli and was holed up at home with the curtains drawn and noise-cancelling headphones on. I had also started medication for depression. In 2014, when I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, I was still experiencing sound and light sensitivity, remnants of a jostled brain.

The cancer diagnosis really threw me. At the young age of 24, I was frustrated that I now had to deal with a massive life hurdle. Predictably, the diagnosis didn’t help my depression. Although I tried to be positive, the surgery and treatment and having to temporarily stop work took its toll on me and my days became about navigating my symptoms. Shortly afterwards, I also received a fibromyalgia diagnosis.

I was trapped in my body. I had to decide between having a shower or making breakfast because my energy levels and the pain didn’t allow me to do both. I remember the extreme exhaustion of not being able to move and yet, not being able to get any decent sleep. My illnesses became a major part of my life, and understandably, a major part of my identity. I felt stuck and no matter what I tried, I just couldn’t seem to break the vicious cycle of diagnosis upon diagnosis, medication and symptoms.

So with that context, of course people who cared about me were worried about me traveling on my own. But over the last year, things have changed for the better. The change started when my therapist pointed out my attachment to my illness.

At the time, I had been seeing her for a couple of years, and we had established a sense of trust. She was aware of the other complexities in my life, in addition to my health challenges. We had also been working on various strategies for me to manage my symptoms, and she introduced me to a more structured practice of meditation and mindfulness. So when she suggested to me that I had created a narrative for myself as a sick person, I was affronted.

I became defensive. “What do you mean I’m attached to my illness? I don’t want to be sick.” It was harsh to hear, but it forced me to confront something that had been holding me back. Over the next couple of sessions, I was wary of her and resentful of her notion that I was attached to my sickness. When I brought this up with my brother, he acknowledged that I had been sick for a very long time and that it only made sense that I have an identity of being sick. I appreciated the honesty with which the truth was acknowledged, a mirror which reflected the undeniable back to me.

I didn’t want to be sick though, or did I? In hindsight, there was a sense of comfort that I had built up around my identity as someone who was sick. I knew that I was the person who had cancer. But maybe, just maybe, this “identity” wasn’t helpful if I wanted to truly start getting better. I would have to be brave. Who else would I be if not someone who was ill all the time? I supposed that I would find out.

It didn’t mean that my illnesses weren’t real. What happened to me was hard and challenging and awful. A lot of what I had to go through was unfair in many ways. Yes, most people didn’t understand how bad it was. Yes, it sucked. Yes, I technically do still have cancerous cells in my body. But what am I actually capable of doing as I work on getting my thyroid hormones back in balance? What am I stopping myself from doing because of this idea that I am a sick person?

And so with this awareness, I started to catch myself when I used my illness as an excuse for not doing something. Can I really not climb that flight of stairs or do I just think I can’t? Sometimes, the answer truly was that my pain level was too high to attempt stairs. But other times, I noticed that I could indeed go for a short walk. Or that yes, I could actually stand for long enough to bake a cake. It became an intentional practice of listening to my body, rather than the thought in my head that I couldn’t do something because I was sick.

Gradually, I built on this practice of being mindful. Being mindful of why I was or wasn’t choosing to do certain things. I worked on accepting my body for what it was. If I was in a lot of pain, I tried to be aware of it rather than avoid it. I had been sick for so long that I also needed to catch and gently correct when other people were seeing me as unable to do something. It was an ongoing practice in expressing that when I did need help, I would ask for it. I had to change the narrative so that others would also see me as healthy, vibrant, alive.

I still catch myself making excuses due to my illness, because old habits are hard to break. I still have ongoing health issues, but my illnesses aren’t my first waking thought. They don’t take up as much space in my head or in my life.

Once I realized that I had created an identity as a victim and a sick person, I noticed how much I wanted it to not be true. Suddenly everything became just that little clearer. It’s a mental shift and nothing is stopping us from seeing it except the own narrative we create in our heads. This shift has had a lasting impact on how I see myself and continue to move forward.

So when people were worried about me traveling on my own and asked whether I could manage it, I did have a moment or several of questioning whether I could do it. I’m glad I listened to where my body was at, instead of the fears in my head. I went on vacation by myself, and I loved it.

Health researcher, PhD student and writer. Thriving with thyroid cancer. All about reflection, growth and living fully. nadhahassen.com

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