I ask this question in this post’s title because I know for some people their illness struck at a relatively young age, or there were always hints of what was to come even if the full-blown illness didn’t hit until later.
It wasn’t like that for me. My first episode of depression didn’t start until I was almost 27. Before that, I was a happy, optimistic person who enjoyed life. I was an introvert, but I still really enjoyed socializing with my small circle of really close friends. I was passionate about travelling, and did a big international trip every year.
After my first depressive episode, which involved a long hospitalization and multiple suicide attempts, my illness went into full remission. I was then depression-free for almost 4 years, although I had small dips in mood and sleep in late summer each year. Otherwise, though, I was back to my happy, optimistic self, and able to handle some reasonably significant situational stressors without too much difficulty.
I got depressed again in 2011, seemingly out of the blue. I was sick for over a year and hospitalized multiple times, but in 2013 I got back into full remission. Except my remission wasn’t as stable as before, and there were some bursts of depressive symptoms that medication increases would take care of. I got really sick again in 2016, and now it looks like remission just isn’t in the cards.
The point of this little ramble is that I wasn’t someone who was always a little bit depressed. I was emotionally sensitive, but I was pretty happy much of the time. I liked myself, and I liked my life. When depression first made an appearance in my life, I conceptualized it as an illness that happened to me rather than something that was inherently part of me. Part of that was a sense of “sick me” and “well me”, who were the same person deep down, but their thoughts, feelings, and ways of looking at the world were very different.
I know it’s not like that for a lot of people. It seems like anxiety in particular tends to show up fairly young and persist throughout a person’s life. I would imagine that when mental health problems, even if it’s not full-blown illness, start at a young age, that becomes inextricably intertwined with identity. It can’t be easy to have an identity separate from depression or anxiety if those things have always been present.
It’s now been almost 3 years since my illness was in remission, and the likelihood of achieving remission at this point is pretty slim unless some remarkable new treatment is developed. It’s been a bit strange to wrap my head around identity-wise. I still remember “well me”, although she feels further and further away. The things that she used to think and feel have become increasingly foreign. While I still think of my illness as a sort of outside entity that isn’t inherently me, I’ve had to shift my perspective from one of episodic illness to one of chronic illness.
There’s a sense of mourning almost that goes along with that. Yes, I’m still the same person deep down, but the joy, optimism, and passion that were once so prominent in my life are now gone. I’m now indifferent to the things that used to interest me. More and more, depression has become part of who I am, and it has influenced every area of my life. Well me is not someone I have much access to anymore.
It makes me wonder what the identity journey is like for those people whose illness has been a part of them for much of their lives. Does illness play a different role in establishing identity in that context? Can identity ever be truly separated from illness?
What are your thoughts?