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When Your Identity Is Stripped Away by Chronic Illness

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Who are you?

Your gifts, relationships, the roles you play?

Chronic illness (and any trauma really) will rob you of everything on your list at one time or another. It will take all that you thought you were, shatter it, and leave you to rebuild yourself in the light of humility.

Go ahead, scratch off each item … Every. Single. One.

  • I didn’t realize how vital being smart was to my identity until the brain fog hit and I had trouble keeping up at work.
  • I don’t feel like I’m a capable parent on days when my daughters are taking care of me.
  • I don’t feel tenacious when the most concrete thing I can produce in a day is dinner.
  • I don’t feel like much of a wife when my husband has to wash my hair.

What’s left of us when we scratch every adjective off the list?

What’s left when we’ve sifted through to the most granular parts of our being? Are we worth less? I thought I knew myself well. I even thought that I loved myself. To my surprise, it was all conditional. Becoming ill showed me that much of my self-identity was built upon what I could accomplish, what I could earn. I played with my daughters, worked, was a loving partner, cared for ailing family members, invested in my friendships … and somehow that made me worthy. It made me, me. When I became ill, so much of that came to a stop. I could give very little and needed so much. I couldn’t earn the “worthiness” of the help I was receiving.

One evening, John told me that I was everything he could ever want … and I laughed. Through my fear, sadness, and anger — I couldn’t see the beauty he saw.

And though I couldn’t earn it, John’s love didn’t stop. No one’s did. I was slowly able to see how everyone around me was growing through helping me. I was not able to help them physically, but allowing them to help and love me was good for their spirits. When I was scared, John would sit with me until I fell asleep. My daughters would quickly run over to steady my balance when I stumbled. My friends were happy to sit beside me in the quiet and in the tears. My illness brought kindness to all of us.I was left with a pivotal question — if they could love me unconditionally, could I love myself even if I felt like I hadn’t earned it?

While my body recovers, my spirit is hard at work too. I feel changes in unseen ways. I recognize the lies that have held me back: “you’re not worthy, your voice is not important, stay small and everything will be OK.”

There are days when I cannot physically contribute, but my spirit is not worth less. I will not be overtaken by illness. My heart is growing in humility and gratitude and I can see how I am deserving of love right where I am. We are all deserving of love right where we are.

So, what’s left when I remove every adjective from the list? What’s left is my spirit.

Again, I ask — who are you?

My wish is for you to see how beautiful and worthy you are, in your good moments, but especially in your tough ones.

Photo submitted by contributor.

Originally published: May 2, 2021
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