Who are you?
This is a question I ask myself all too often, because there are times when I feel it’s not too apparent. I mean, yes, on a literal level, I know who I am – I know my name, and when I was born, and where I live. But on a deeper level, I often have difficulty knowing exactly who I am.
Some of this is because of my experience with mental illness. I know I have made a lot of changes in the four and a half years since coming to Menninger (and Texas), but sometimes it’s hard to tell exactly how much. I can’t clearly remember what I used to be like before depression became a looming figure in my life; I’m aware of events, and I know some generalities – I have always been on the quiet, bookish side – but I can’t clearly recall what my personality was like before. Who was I when the crushing bulk of depression wasn’t weighing on my mind all the time?
This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon; many people have reported that their mental illness seemed to take over a large portion of their life and even co-opt parts of their identity. There have even been studies done about it, and articles written; you can find one here entitled Stealing Me From Myself about how people with mental illness, and the loved ones in their lives, have noticed significant changes in personality and identity when the illness sets in. Living with a mental illness, especially a severe one, can majorly redefine what we see as our ‘self’, our identity; it becomes a part of who we are, and it tends to be quite forceful about it, crowding out other portions of our identity. The things we used to enjoy may not appeal to us anymore, either because we just find ourselves incapable of feeling joy that way, or because we lack energy to participate anymore.
When we learn to deal with or manage our mental illness – however long that takes – we often find that old parts of our personality return. Someone whose crushing depression made them unable to enjoy hiking might have the energy to take it up again, for example. Someone whose delusions made it impossible to read without discovering hidden messages and conspiracies, when medicated, might find that they can pick up an old favorite book and enjoy it for what it is once more. But not everything comes back. As another article – Mental Illness, The Identity Thief – talks about, sometimes there’s just no way to get back to where, or who, we were before. I can’t watch some of the movies and listen to some of the music I used to enjoy because of the rush of negative emotions they bring on. There are people whose presence I used to enjoy, but whom I just can’t be around because some of the things they do are dangerous to my own self-care.
And then there is how others see us. This can be one of the worst parts of the change in our identity, because the people who have known us as mentally ill often have difficulty seeing us as anything else. There aren’t many people in my life who actually remember me for who I was before – mostly just my family and a couple old friends. And there are a lot of people who I have met since who have had to deal with me when I was at my worst, and often haven’t had the chance to interact with me since I’ve begun to successfully manage my illness. Do they see me differently? Will they always see me as the guy who couldn’t smile, who was all too easily tired out, who was relentlessly negative and cynical? If I were to meet them again and speak to them as who I am now, would they be able to reconcile the person I am with the person I was? Or, like Melissa Kirk writes in Psychology Today, will that image of me as a mentally ill person be the only way they’ll be able to view me? Will my identity in their eyes always be shaped by that?
Going forward, I’m not sure who I’ll be. I’m not really all that sure who I have been; many of my memories are cloaked in the fog of depression. There are parts of my identity that I am sure of now – I’m a geek; I’m an academic; I’m a liberal’ I’m a Christian. But how much will my identity change as my life continues to move forward? Will moving into employment in the social work field shape my identity at all? And if so, how? Depression will continue to leave some lasting impression – I can’t imagine how it wouldn’t since it’s a permanent passenger – but how much of an impression will that be?
I don’t really know who I’m supposed to be, but I’m interested to find out.