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Meeting the 'New You' After Illness Strips Away Your Old Identity

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From a young age, society teaches us that we need to come up with a definition of who we are. We begin cultivating this identity from the minute we are born. Taking in suggestions from family, friends, and caretakers along the way.

As a child, maybe you’re a soccer star or a star wars fan. As a teen, diving deeper in, you become president of the yearbook club or a member of the marching band. By the time you hit adulthood you may think you’ve got it all figured out. You might have a career and often a degree that defines you. Maybe you’re a journalist, an accountant, or a baseball player. The never-ending search to answer one of the biggest questions of our life continues on and on. Who are you?

But what happens when this identity you’ve built up for so long is stripped away from you?

Suddenly you might become so weak you can no longer be the party girl out dancing until 4 a.m with your friends. You may have severe brain fog and cognitive disabilities – forcing you to lose the capacity to perform your job. You might resign from work and realize you’re no longer the successful lawyer at the big corporate firm. Your joint pain could become so severe you can no longer stand at the kitchen counter preparing a meal for your beloved family. This is the reality of chronic illness.

Now that you’ve seemingly lost it all, who are you?

Once we are stripped of our jobs, social lives, and hobbies, we often realize the identity we thought we were building up for years prior doesn’t really encapsulate anything about who we really are. These definitions we come up with are just personas we identify with. They’re often based on the mold that we have fit ourselves into at the hands of an omnipresent society. We define ourselves by the careers we chose, the friends we have, and the skills we cultivate. Once you let go of this image, you’re left with the bare bones of what truly defines you. It’s not our job, our bank account, or our degree that make up a person – we each are so much more.

Maybe other people in your life could see the true you before. Someone super close to you can sometimes see this raw version of you aside from the superficial identity we’ve created. This person catches glimpses of you shining through, but it’s always eclipsed by the identity you’ve worked so hard to create. This facade we build up is so believable that even you can’t seem to identify your genuine character through this fog. But now, with no choice but to leave everything you once had behind, you might find out you are not quite who you thought you were.

In fact, lately, when I look in the mirror, it’s like I’m meeting myself for the first time.

Here’s what I’ve learned. I’m a lover — I would do anything for the people closest to me. I’m creative and I often see things in a different light than others may. I’m accepting of everything and everyone. I’m a free spirit and I don’t like being told what to do. I’m compassionate, capable, and captivating. Dare I say it – I’m funny. I make it my job to keep everyone around me laughing and happy. I’ve come to recognize there is a limitless expanse of who you are and what your spirit can truly become. I love these things I’ve learned about myself. I think that the most important lesson we all can learn from chronic disease is how to fall madly and deeply in love with the true you.

Now when I look back at the old me, or who I thought I was, I think, “Why would I ever want to go back?”

There’s nothing wrong with the old you, but the old you didn’t endure this battle. They didn’t fight when they thought they had nothing left to give. They aren’t wearing the battle scars you’ve earned through this fight or wield the wisdom this journey has taught you.

Losing it all teaches us we are meant to break these molds, to change, and to evolve as people. You might even say only the very lucky ones get to go through this metamorphosis and to meet themselves truly and honestly for the first time. Just as the caterpillar sheds its cocoon at just the right moment becoming the beautiful butterfly, you too can develop into a progressed version of yourself and leave the dried up shell of the former you behind.

This new version is better than you could have ever imagined. Truer than you could have ever hoped for. Happier and freer than the one before.

And although I hope this is the only metamorphosis I have to endure in my lifetime, I’m a more authentic version of me for having survived it.

So my advice would be to let this disease change you, let it strip you of what you thought you knew about yourself and forget what you know. I promise that when the dust has cleared and you build yourself back up, you’re going to be so much more than you ever thought you could be.

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Thinkstock photo by Grandfailure

Originally published: August 6, 2017
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