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Finding My 'Self' Through Chronic Illness

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It’s easy to get caught up in identities. Of course – why not? Our whole lives are shaped around our identities.

It’s the labels that really get us.

Who are you, really? Underneath the diagnosis, the symptoms, the pills and remedies, what is it that truly defines you?

For the longest time I’ve struggled to answer this question because I subconsciously have made my health – particularly chronic migraine – my identity. It happened gradually over time, but especially overcame me when I became a part of the advocacy community, surprisingly enough. Go figure!

I absolutely love being a part of the advocacy community; it’s one of my greatest pleasures and I’m honored to be a voice for others battling chronic illnesses. But being so absorbed in this community had me consumed in my illnesses for a long time. It’s still something I get caught up in at times. Don’t get me wrong, health is a vital part of our identities, but it doesn’t make up our whole. It’s only a fraction of the circle of our unique lives.

Those of us with health conditions – such as myself with chronic migraine, chronic pain and autoimmune disease – tend to get completely wrapped up in our struggles sometimes. It becomes us, we become it. We are one. But that mentality can be extremely damaging, especially when we are working to get better both physically and mentally. It can hold us back.

When you think of the question, “who are you?” what sort of things pop into your mind? Does your health top the list? Maybe there are some others, such as you’re a son or daughter, a spouse, a friend, a coworker, a neighbor, a professional. These are all valid and important answers, but we have to dig a little deeper than that. These still aren’t all the things that make us ourselves.

In my DBT group (dialectical behavioral therapy, a type of group setting therapy that focuses on mindfulness and self-care) we would discuss this concept a lot. We used what’s called the “Wheel of Awareness” by Dan Siegel as an example, and it is a really helpful way of re-learning who you inherently are and understand that you need to come first.

As our counselor always said, “love from the inside out.”

Health is a big issue in this because it has so many labels, so much identity tied to it. We carry our illnesses around with us everywhere, 24/7/365, so of course they feel like they are who we are. But they aren’t. Trust me.

Imagine yourself as a full circle. This circle is you, the core, the “hub.” Then imagine a larger circle surrounding you. The outer rim of your Wheel are all the things that impact you, but that you cannot directly control. It includes most of your senses as well as memories, emotions and tangible influencers such as your family, job, hobbies and of course – your health. These are things that, for the most part, you can’t control.

But often we can take these on ourselves and absorb them into our own inner circle, where they don’t belong.

Nonetheless, these points are still very important to your overall being and you must still acknowledge them, your health issues included. Always acknowledge your health and take care of it, but don’t allow it into your hub as a negative energy.

It’s essential to come to an understanding that your outer circle, while it is a huge part of your life, doesn’t actually equate to who you are. Who you are is separate from the things that influence you. You have certainly been shaped by these things, but they don’t define you. Remember that you, and only you, can control you. Your hub is a consciousness, a center for awareness, calmness, clarity, peace and more.

So what does your inner circle look like?

Dig deep and reflect on who you believe you are, who you want to be, who you aspire to be apart from migraines, chronic pain, autoimmune disease, mental illness or any other illness and negativity in your life.

My personal Wheel of Awareness contains traits I associate with myself such as gratitude, creativity, compassion, empathy and love. It also has the type of persons I identify with: a writer, artist, daughter, friend, lover, advocate and more. And finally of course, it contains the things I enjoy and love: my family, my friends, my dog, my home, books, writing, arts and crafts, nature, wellness, mindfulness and so much more.

black and white photo of a woman in a dress walking outside

When I finally created my Wheel of Awareness with confidence, I realized how much stock I’d been putting into my illnesses, and in turn how much they were controlling my identity. I didn’t want to be viewed as “the sick girl,” but rather a strong woman who is spreading awareness of her illnesses, but has plenty of other worthy features too.

In building your Wheel of Awareness, you can much more easily come to realize that you are not migraines or chronic pain or other illness—you are made up of several amazing, beautiful, unique traits that take precedence over the pain. Don’t downplay your pain, but rather increase your self-awareness and notice more of the positive, unique parts of you. Remember this, practice this and your health will not become your identity.

And when you revel in that, it’s like a breath of fresh air.

This story originally appeared on The Migraine Mantras.

Originally published: March 5, 2018
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