Why Life With an Illness Is Like a Caterpillar Going Through Metamorphosis

Transformation is usually seen as a good thing. But what happens when the transformational process leaves you unable to recognize your new self? Chronic illness can be a lot like that.

Take the butterfly, for instance. It’s one of the most common symbols for the transformation process and is often metaphorical for spiritual rebirths and awakenings.

When I went through a major depressive episode 10 years ago, I was attracted to the imagery of the butterfly. I collected pictures of them. I painted them. Friends and family sent me cards and pictures of butterflies. I was enamored by the whole process of this little caterpillar basically turning to “mush” in a chrysalis and then emerging as something new and beautiful. I was waiting to transform and become something new. Something freer. Except I forgot one major detail.

If you were to show that butterfly itself in a mirror, it wouldn’t even recognize what it has become. It would be looking for its caterpillar self – not its butterfly self. This new creature would not understand what it is now…and why it is what it is now.

Isn’t that what most of us go through with chronic illnesses? We look for who we used to be? The “new” us is not always recognizable. Our interests and perspectives change. Our hobbies, our friends and support systems go through a refining process.

I keep looking for the me I once was. I was an extrovert. I always liked talking to people and making new friends wherever I went. I loved being out and about. The new me shies away from people and crowds because of anxiety or awkward conversations that inevitably lead me to reveal my illness to people.

The old me used to work and travel. The new me goes to what seems like endless doctor appointments. My new bestie is Netflix. Some days I am not even able to leave the house due to mast cell activation syndrome. Anything can make me sick. And some weeks I am unable to be in a grocery store for more than 10 minutes because of anxiety. This is the new me and I barely recognize myself. Everyday I look for that caterpillar in the mirror, but he’s nowhere to be found.

It’s OK to not know who you are anymore. It’s OK to keep searching and keep learning about your new self and most importantly, it’s OK not to like it. Transformation is not always an easy process. Sometimes you won’t recognize yourself. You adjust to a new normal and that normal may change week to week and month to month.

I still love butterflies. I love learning about them. And even though some days are unbearably hard, I still try to learn about this new me that I have become.

Getty image by jagadeesha Gokhale

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