How I Learned to Develop My Identity Without My Mental Illness

I was diagnosed during my early adolescence, at 13 or 14. The adolescent period is not easy to get through, what with changes in society’s expectations coupled together with biological changes. It is also during this period of time that a sense of self is developed — an identity. According to developmental psychologist Erik Erikson, the main developmental task of adolescence is identity development. Failure to do so would result in role confusion.

As it is, developing your identity and finding out “who you are” is a difficult task. What more, then, if you have diagnoses to deal with? There is a strong stigma attached to mental illnesses, and having a diagnosis slapped across your forehead like a label only makes identity development more challenging. I ended up building my identity around that label without realizing it.

I did not hide my mental illness, because I’d rather people know now and decide whether they want to be a part of my life, than if people find out and decide to leave after I have grown attached to them. However, I went overboard and I let myself become my illness. When asked to describe myself, the first things that came to mind were my diagnoses. I realized, about two years ago, that I didn’t know who I was before, or behind, my illness. Who was I if I wasn’t the girl with scars on her arms and suicide on her record? Quite frankly, I didn’t care. I didn’t believe I would ever be without illness anyway. In the second half of 2015, however, as a “better” began to seem more imminent, I realized it was time to redefine my identity. Studying developmental psychology, I realized how far I was lacking behind in terms of personal growth, thanks to the state of my identity. As I was told by a friend (and now my boyfriend), I do not need to start rebuilding my identity scratch — I just needed to rearrange the emphasis on the various aspects of my identity.

It took me months of downloading identity-forming worksheets online, which were meant for young adolescents. Slowly, I managed to find myself again. I will never be who I was before illness, and that’s OK. My illness is still a part of who I am because it’s a major part of my life, but it no longer dominates my identity, even when I’m relapsing. My self-concept is different and, hopefully, my self-esteem will follow suit.

I am proud to say that, today, I know I am so much more than illness.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you struggle with self-harm and you need support right now, call the crisis hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

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Thinkstock photo via KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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