Things are seldom simple when it comes to mental illness. I am many things all at the same time, and depending on the contexts different facets will shine through most brightly. All of these these pieces have been inexorably changed by my illness, which refuses to remain confined in the box where I would like to put it. My illness does not define me, but its influence has been pervasive and unstoppable.
I am a person living with depression. It’s been twelve years since that first suicide attempt, first hospitalization, first diagnosis. Earlier on in the course of my illness I had periods of illness punctuated by periods of full remission, but as time has gone on, remission feels like a faint, distant memory and an unlikely possibility for the future. This has grown into one of the most prominent aspects of who I am, keeping pace with the increasingly chronic nature of my illness.
I am a nurse. Being a mental health nurse actually came before my mental illness. That nurse identity is a very important one for me, but since I first got sick it’s felt like I’ve had to do a bit of a balancing act, keeping one foot in the professional sphere and one foot in the patient sphere. With the evolution of my illness over time and various challenges I have faced, I’m not able to work very much any more and I’ve moved further away from the professional sphere to become planted more firmly in the patient sphere. That shift is something I’m still struggling to reconcile. Is my nurse identity still valid if I enact it so infrequently? I haven’t figured that part out yet.
I am a person with a graduate degree. I always liked school and valued education. I always intended to do grad school, but when I did eventually start my master of psychiatric nursing degree, the timing wasn’t great, and there were times when I was doing homework while hospitalized. I found a thesis committee that was happy to support me in my desire to focus my research on the intersection where nurse meets mental illness. Then I found journal editors who were willing to publish papers I wrote based on my thesis work. This seemed like the perfect example of how the health professional and mental illness identities should come together. In terms of what my CV would predict, I’m now overeducated and underemployed.
I am a daughter, sister, and granddaughter. My illness has changed how I fulfill those roles. My depression makes me isolate, pushing people away even though I know they care about me. There have been months-long periods when I have stopped talking to my family because the very idea of it agitated me. I’ve come to realize that the barrier my illness has placed between me and my family may always be there. Sometimes it will be easier to surmount than others, but I feel like going back to the way things used to be just isn’t possible.
I am a ghoster. I used to have a small set of very close friends. When I’m depressed, contact with people feels like rubbing salt on an open wound. One by one I ran away from from friend after friend. I didn’t have an explanation to give, and didn’t have the internal resources to have that conversation anyway, so I ghosted. Perhaps I should feel guilt over behaving that way toward people who deserved far better, but I did what I felt I needed to at the time for self-preservation. I’m a bit of a hermit these days, but life is easier that way, and I’ve accepted that hermit identity into the mix.
I am a guinea pig mom. Some people have human children; I have animal children. My little furballs are often the only source of light in the darkness. Without that brightness and companionship, my life would be much harder. When I don’t feel like getting out of bed, they’re my reason to force myself to get up anyway. When suicide calls, they help to anchor me in the storm,
I am a person who has experienced stigma and bullying. I’ve been lucky in that most people who’ve known about my illness have been supportive. My employers have been a notable exception, treating me as though I’m somehow less competent and more unpredictable because of the illness. At my most recent full-time job I experienced workplace bullying, which had lasting, devastating consequences. It took quite some time to realize that bullying was the right name for what had happened to me, and it took far longer than that to process the trauma of the experience.
I am a writer. I’ve always liked to write, but this is a part of me that I’ve really embraced recently. As my identity as a nurse has taken more of a background role, my writing identity has really stepped up as a way to feel that I’m doing something meaningful. The combination of expressing myself and connecting with others has given me a renewed sense of purpose. I can feel that I’m doing something that’s larger than myself, a feeling that I used to primarily get from my work as a nurse.
I am all of these things, yet none of them alone. I’m disabled and abled at the same time. I’m situated where all of these facets of me intersect. It’s complicated and sometimes I lose my way, but acknowledging all of the pieces helps me to find my centre.