Struggling to Define My New Identity Now That I'm Chronically Ill

I once read an article in my college personality psychology course called “On being sane in insane places” by David Rosenhan. It discussed how difficult it is to maintain one’s identity or sense of self when others’ perceptions are being placed on you or the environment is overwhelming. Sound familiar? In this course, how we create our identity through a combination of how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us was explained. How others view us is greatly important in shaping our own reality.

For myself, one of the greatest challenges of becoming chronically ill is re-evaluating my sense of self with the influence of new opinions from doctors, family, friends and new acquaintances. I’ve had people say, “It must be nice to not work.” This is an assumption suggesting I don’t value work or I am lazy, when in fact I love to work and be a worker. Another comment: “You don’t want to be a burden to your husband, do you?” Geez, I never saw myself as a burden to him. Would he tell me if I were? So many questions now fill my head such as: Who am I if I cannot fulfill my roles as worker? Friend? Daughter? What is my worth if I am not making money? How do I contribute to society anymore? Who am I now that I’m sick? Where do I belong?

This change in my health status leaves me very vulnerable to others’ perceptions of me. I never cared much what others thought about me, because I knew who I was and what I wanted to achieve. Belonging to the categories of “student” and “worker” were comforting. I had a path and society valued me. Now, I am a part of society’s fringe category of “disabled” and “sick.” People treat me differently, as they make assumptions about me based on someone they once knew with my illness or a silly commercial selling a drug for my illness. It requires constant effort to either ignore others’ ignorant comments about me or to work to illuminate the truth of who I am.

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with chronic illness is to stay “sane,” as the article from my college days suggests. It is important to not buy into others’ perceptions of who I am now that I’m sick. I get to decide who I am, period. I am still funny, still strong-minded, still capable of loving people with all of my heart, still compassionate and still smart. No one can tell me who I am or what I’m capable of. I am not sure I know all of the answers to the questions I have been asking myself about my new identity. It’s like being a teenager all over again. I figured it out then, so I’ll have to figure it out now.

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