Teasing Apart My Self From My Illness
Is my old self still there or has depression taken over?
Depression is not an illness of identity, but identity disruption can easily become intricately intertwined with it. I used to conceptualize having a very distinct ill self and well self, but as the illness has progressed it has felt like it’s continually trying to worm its way in deeper and deeper, sneaking its way in until it reaches the core of whatever it is that makes me, me.
I first started giving a lot of thought to this a few years ago I was doing my master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. I was learning a lot of sociological theory to incorporate into my thesis work — examining how my experience of mental illness fit within the context of nursing culture. One concept that stood out for me was role identities, the idea that we establish different identities to go with the various key roles that we perform in our lives.
As my illness has become more chronically disabling, it has led to profound shifts in a wide range of role identities. It’s gone beyond just symptoms and moved towards the core of who I am and how I define myself.
This has meant more work in examining and trying to carve out my various identities. It’s meant reestablishing boundaries between what is me and what is my illness. It hasn’t been an easy journey. The illness has crept into all aspects of my life, hijacking and seemingly discarding so many things that were once a part of me.
It makes me wonder sometimes if there even is a true me left, or just my illness, an imposter that has taken up residence inside my head. Other times I feel a deep certainty that I’m still here, and that core me is still worth fighting for.
I used to define myself at least to some extent by the things I was passionate about doing. Because of depression I don’t get passionate anymore, and so my intrepid traveller and theatre lover identities have been shed along the way. This has made me realize that defining myself through outwardly-facing things is probably not the best idea.
My intelligence and love of learning were important parts of my identity. I’ve struggled a lot with cognitive symptoms of depression, which have made it difficult to access that part of me. At least in this area, I feel like depression has blocked the way rather than obliterating my cerebral side altogether. The “stupid” identity that I take on is at least partially in jest, as I recognize the costume that depression is making me wear.
The trauma I sustained related to past experiences of workplace bullying has affected my sense of self as being safe and empowered in the world. The just-world fallacy is a type of cognitive bias that tends to make us believe that the world is a fair place. I used to be biased in that direction as much as anyone else, but now I look at the self who used to think that and wonder how she could possibly have been so naïve.
The bullying tied in closely with an increase in illness-related disability, and the two working in tandem have left me with a fundamental distrust of other people. That represents a marked shift from the optimistic, trusting person I used to be. The shift from trusting to untrusting is an easy one to make, but to go back in the other direction seems as impossible as scaling a cliff with my bare hands.
My professional identity as a mental health nurse used to be a key part of my overall identity. While that identity hasn’t been stripped away from me entirely, my sense of self-efficacy in that role has faltered considerably. I used to be the nurse who would be the first to take action when something was wrong. Now, I’m the nurse who can’t think clearly enough to communicate properly during a crisis and kicks herself afterwards for being a shell of who she was.
My old nursing self is just a little bit disgusted with this tremulous, babbling idiot. Yet this role identity that was once so strong for me is something that gradually I’ve started to let go, since I realize it won’t necessarily be mine for all that much longer, and certainly not in the way that it used to be.
My depressive illness has brought many, many changes to my life and how I see myself. In some ways it has changed who I am, but the more I reflect on that the more I’m able to see that it doesn’t always have to be a bad thing.
My illness has made me a warrior. It has made me into a stigma fighter. As it has tried to kick my butt, I have fought back. I don’t always win, but I always keep fighting. That’s just who I am. That’s who I will always be, and that’s perhaps the most important identity of all.