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How Mental Illness Stole My Identity, but I'm Determined to Take It Back

I never thought that I tied my identity to my mental illnesses. I’m more than schizoaffective disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is just something I live with. Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) doesn’t define me. And depression and anxiety are a battle, not my identity. I convinced myself that I am my own true self. But after 13 years of therapy, I’m realizing that I have no idea who I am at all. And it’s nearly ground my recovery to a halt.

I preached that I am not my illnesses. I am a person, not a diagnosis. But as we dig into the deepest, darkest parts of my mind, I’m realizing that that’s not entirely correct. The truth is, I’ve spent my whole life running away from them because I did think they were my identity. And it absolutely terrified me.

As a child, I didn’t understand my
depression and OCD.

I didn’t know that my rituals, stomach-clenching
anxiety and aching sadness were symptoms. I thought they were a part of me, that that was me. They owned my thoughts and determined my actions. It didn’t occur to me to ask for help because I didn’t think they could be changed. They wrapped me up and spun me around until I didn’t know what was happening. I felt so out of control. I didn’t want to be that person, so I ran.

My first attempt at escape came in junior high.

It was horses. I loved horses. I rode horses. They were my safe place. For two years, horses were my identity. I hid behind horse shirts, wrangler jeans and cowboy boots. I even signed my name with a horse doodle next to it. But I quickly realized that I stood out from everyone, and not in a way that made me feel good. I had to go back to the drawing board. Cut my hair, traded glasses for contact lenses and decided it was time to leave the horse shirts in my drawer.

In high school, I created a new identity.

She was cool. She was an alternative rock chick who wore what she wanted, said what was on her mind and exuded confidence with every breath. But she was limited and I’m not sure I ever fully pulled it off. I felt like I had to hide my love of pop music because it didn’t fit with my persona. And I found myself needing a second opinion on everything. I was trying to cram myself into a box that I thought would protect me from that cold, cruel
depression and frenetic anxiety. I told myself they weren’t mental illnesses. “You can get over it,“ I told myself. “There is no help for you. This is you.”

Lately, I’ve been flipping through the pages of my life, and I’m seeing things more clearly.

I’ve spent my whole life trying to be what other people want me to be, jumping into box after box like a cat. I swore I would never be fake, but in reality, I change myself to match whoever I am with. I read your body language, weigh your words and analyze the situation to determine how you want me to respond. Sure, there are certain lines I won’t cross, like politics and the importance of mental health and
mental health care, but I’m dying to be the person you want me to be.

Despite my feverish sprint,
mental illness caught up with me.

I’m 17 and now I’m sitting with
schizoaffective disorder. I didn’t know what to do with that. I tried hiding it and the treatment I was undergoing for it, but the weight was too heavy. In teaching others about it, I found purpose. I could help create a world where people like me would be better understood. But I could still taste the denial at the back of my tongue.

A doctorate seemed like the logical choice after college, but as I dragged my feet, saying I was preparing, I realized that’s not what I wanted. I was just doing it because I could and others expected it. Instead, I went through idea after idea, but each one fizzled. As I bounced from one career idea to another, I could feel depression catching up until it tapped on my shoulder.

I never truly escaped.

Growing up with the assumption that my
depression, anxiety and OCD were not illnesses with symptoms, but rather my personal characteristics is dragging me backward in recovery. They became an integral part of me — threads woven into the very fabric of my being. And I have no idea who I truly am without them. I don’t know how to feel good about myself because I was always afraid of myself. Happiness is uncomfortable, though I crave it. In therapy, we’re struggling to separate the illnesses from myself because I don’t know what’s left. When we strip me down to my core, what’s there?

I’m 30 and I don’t know who I am or even who I want to be, but there must be something more to me than my illnesses.

Honestly, I feel so lost sometimes. I find myself slipping back to people-pleasing all the time. It’s all I know. If I can give you what you want, be who you want me to be, then I can make you happy even if it hurts me. And it’s time to stop, but I’m still figuring out how to do that.

Despite the pain of the illnesses, I’m afraid to let them go. They’re the only part of me that always feels real. What if I don’t like the girl I am underneath it all? What if other people don’t like her? Will I feel comfortable in my own skin? But I want to try. I need to find myself and learn to love that person, no matter who she is.

So here goes nothing.

Right now, I’m trying to allow myself to practice more self-care. I’m figuring out meditation. And I’m trying to stop myself from briskly skipping over my wants and needs in favor of the wants and needs of others. Mostly, I’m hesitantly looking inside myself to sort out what parts are me and what parts are just the me I created for other people. It’s absolutely terrifying, and I have no idea if what I’m doing is right, but I’m determined to figure this out.

Follow this journey on the author’s blog, katiesanford.net.

Image via contributor

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