Photograph by Syd Hill
How does one find themself, and reclaim their identity, after years of being smothered by mental illness? I’m in recovery for severe anxiety and an eating disorder, and as I get better I’m starting to often questioning who I am, as for the past 6 years (since I was about 11) my entire being, all of who I am, has seemed defined by these illnesses to the point that I now often feel lost without them to define me, even though I know that I am made up of so much more.
Thanks for writing into our advice forum. I want to start off by saying that I empathize with where you are coming from, but I also know I could never fully understand your situation. Mental illness is a very personal struggle and we all deal with it in different ways, but I can relate through my own experience.
I’ve been dealing with depression and anxiety for most of my life, both of which can consume a lot of myself. One thing that I’ve learned is that my depression and anxiety are deeply a part of who I am. There have been many times in my life where I felt the heaviness of these mental illnesses and I felt as if I were going to disintegrate and melt away; but, growing through these points of my life has proven to me how strong I am becoming and have taught me how I can best cope when they circle back. I recognize that these experiences have greatly shaped who I am and are inseparable from my identity–and that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. If nothing else, work on accepting that your mental illness is a part of your journey–denial or shame won’t help anything, and you certainly have nothing to be ashamed of, despite the stigma that often surrounds mental illness.
When I was 17, I had just begun my own zine in which I wrote about what I was going through. Writing and making art has really helped me channel these emotions. Maybe as you continue to explore who you are, start with the things you love to do and try new things–like writing a zine or making music–which may be ways in which you can start to reclaim your identity. Embracing your experiences and emotions is a beautiful way to reclaim yourself. It can also help to find people to talk to who have had similar experiences, or are going through a similar recovery period, such as a peer support group. It can be major to not feel alone and to have other people to reflect on the sometimes strange aftermath of illness.
Finally, I would try to redefine your conception of mental illness and your experiences for yourself, not as smothering but as the soil that you will grow from. Inside every caterpillar, before metamorphosis, is the framework for transforming into a butterfly. It’s the same for you.
Kaitlyn and the Ramona Team[share]