“Who Am I?”: Identity and Illness

Who am I?

In an era of individualism, branding, and self-promotion, I feel like this might actually be a question that people ask themselves more regularly than ever before. I know that I revisit it myself constantly.

What makes me who I am?

 How do I define myself?

 What does it mean to be me?

I’ve asked myself about a dozen iterations of that same question and I’ve come up with ten times as many answers. Though I like to believe that I am always growing, evolving into better versions of myself as time goes on, there are some elements of my personality that have never changed, such as my introversion, love for books, emotional nature, and of course, my mental illnesses.

Though I wasn’t always fully aware of it—as I discussed in my last post—mental illness has been with me for my entire life. I simply do not remember a time during which I was not plagued by “irrational” bouts of deep sadness, live-wire anxiety, and even symptoms of what I now recognize as my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. There are hundreds of examples of moments which I can look back to now and in hindsight confirm that my reaction, perception, or feeling about something stemmed from one of my illnesses. These thoughts, feelings, and symptoms shaped my personality—how I act, how I think, how I view the world… The list is endless.

I’ve spent years asking myself that inescapable question: “Who am I?” and fiddling with the various answers I manage to piece together. Perhaps that sounds strange, but when asking myself these questions the answers never came together to create a clear image of who I knew myself to be– there was always something deeper that I was missing.

I believe that this place of deep reflection and continual questioning is one that many people with a pervasive mental illness come to at one point or another. I could be wrong, but I’d like to think that I’m not the only one who puts such efforts into searching for answers to that ultimate question of self. Perhaps it has become such a focus for me because I am the sort of person who needs whole answers rather than generalities. Regardless of the cause, I learned to arm myself against the world with all sorts of definitions of self.

What I soon learned is that for every self-realization I earned, another question arose out of the muck of my psyche. Many of these questions went primarily unasked for some time and remain unanswered, always floating in the realm of uncertainty.  As someone who lives with life-long mental illness, how do I truly determine the boundary between who I am and what’s wrong with me?

Some questions I’ve pondered:

Am I always feeling left out, misunderstood, and disappointed in myself because I’m an INFJ or because of my anxiety?

Am I constantly dealing with processing the cruelty of the world on such a personal level because I’m an Empath or is it just a factor of my severe depression?

Is the reason I am so sensitive to sound and light just because I’m a  Highly Sensitive Person or is it because they directly trigger my mood disorders?

Are my moodiness and reclusive nature manifestations of my Cancerian star sign or are these more symptoms of the stresses of depression and anxiety?

Is the reason I feel like a dead battery after spending time out with those I care for simply part of my introversion or is it yet another side effect of my mental illnesses?

I believe that to even begin to answer these questions, one has to take a close look at the idea of personality. This is a gigantic topic that has been studied continuously by various individuals and organizations, so our understanding of it is always shifting. These studies continue because we really want to know what makes us us. When you think about yourself and who you are, you are likely to think about your personality, because it is more often than not the core of our identity.

The University of Cambridge has a fascinating article on their website which addresses how the folds of the brain affect personality. It also discusses how a correlation between brain morphology and mood, cognitive, and behavioral disorders can clearly be found.

So I am presented with ever more questions:

All of those characteristics listed above are indeed a part of my prime personality, but do they not all clearly resemble symptoms of depression and anxiety, as well as other mental disorders?

Where is the line between personality and a severe and lifelong mental illness drawn?

How does one separate a trait from all the different factors that contribute to it?

And if these characteristics and symptoms are literally a part of my biology, who would I be without my illnesses?

If you came here and read this post believing that there would be an answer to any or all of these questions, I am sorry to disappoint you. I have no true answers, though a have endless ideas and thoughts about what some of the answers may be. Instead of answers, I’ll leave you with a set of questions I’ve been asking myself recently:

How much of me is my mental illness?

 How much of it would I get rid of if I could?

 Who would I be without the parts I’d throw away? 

For those of you who also suffer from a mental illness, I’d love to hear your opinions if you feel so inclined to share. If not, know that someone else out there is with you, thinking some of the same thoughts, and asking some of the same questions.

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One thought on ““Who Am I?”: Identity and Illness

  1. Terri says:

    I love this, and I appreciate that you’ve put this out there, as it’s something I struggle with myself. It was one of the biggest factors in my decision to start – and then stop – medication. The idea that a part of us, no matter how painful, has such an impact on who we are and how we view the world is truly frightening, but it’s comforting to know that someone else is questioning this as well. As odd as it sounds, weighing the pros and cons of having certain mental illnesses has helped me in defining myself beyond diagnoses. For example, my misophonia – as painful as it is to deal with on a daily basis – has granted me a deeper awareness of sound than most people tend to have. Not sure if this process is for everyone, but it has been helping me!


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