Mental health

Mental Illness Disability & Identity Shifts

Shifting identities: learning to live with mental illness disability – graphic of carnival masks

Role identity is a concept in sociology that refers to the identities that we build around the various socially defined roles that we fulfill.  Identity shifts can occur over time based on a variety of factors, including the importance those roles play in our lives overall.

Student was a key role identity for me for many years.  After high school, I did 7 straight years of post-secondary education.  Being a student was a role that I enjoyed and was good at, and it fit well with my personal values.

I graduated from nursing school in 2004, and found it very easy to begin constructing a new identity as a nurse.  As my competence and confidence grew, it became a very defining role in my life.  I was very happy with my career choice, and I was always eager to learn more so that I could be more effective clinically.  I had a good work-life balance, but my work was definitely a passion.

In 2007, depression first hit.  That was a much harder identity to construct.  After about a year, the illness went into full remission.  I knew there was a high likelihood that I would get sick again, but that mental illness identity stayed in the background until I relapsed in 2011.

Since then, the mental illness identity has become stronger, but for several years the nurse identity remained strong and one of the most defining.  That has changed, though, over the last few years, and it’s been strange to experience.

The nurse identity has been steadily fading into the background since I quit my last job in 2016 due to workplace bullying.  Over the last 2 years, I’ve only worked night shifts, which involves very little actual nursing work.  I haven’t been well enough to work very much, so over those two years I was only picking up the occasional shift here and there.  While I still have my professional knowledge base, the identification I feel with the role of nurse has really eroded.

It’s been a gradual enough process that I didn’t give it much thought until fairly recently.  I suspect that the end of my nursing career isn’t that far away,.  My level of functioning has been getting steadily worse, not better.  It doesn’t really stir up much for me emotionally, but from a detached cognitive perspective, it’s strange.  Strange that something that was such an important part of me isn’t really there anymore, or at least not in the way that it used to be, and it isn’t going to be there at all in the likely near-ish future.

If nursing had been just a job for the last 15 years and a bit, then none of this would be worth a second thought.  But it wasn’t just what I did, it was a passion, it was who I was.

When I first got sick, I would never have guessed that, in the process of identity shifts, the illness-related role identity would have risen above all others.  It never crossed my mind that my illness identity would serve as the foundation for other meaningful identities, like blogger and writer.

I wonder if there will be a sense of mourning whenever the nurse identity fully transitions from present to past.  I have accepted the inevitability of this, though.  Maybe that’s why I wear the identity of nurse so loosely now.

Have you noticed any significant identity shifts due to mental illness?

You can find more posts about identity on the blog index.

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32 thoughts on “Mental Illness Disability & Identity Shifts”

  1. You are a wonderful nurse! I used to have a nurse phobia, but at this point in my life, I’m mostly past that; and if I needed to have a nurse for whatever reason, I’d be thrilled for it to be you! You’re a great nurse!! For sure!! I’m so sad that you feel like that part of your identity is slipping away!!

    I’ve always wanted to help abused children. It was never a huge part of my identity, since the job at residential treatment facilities was scary (it required physical restraint, and I have no upper-body strength). But doing that sort of work matters to me. I’ve been toying with becoming a CASA (court-appointed special advocate), but my dad’s trying to talk me out of it. (He thinks I lack tact, and that I’m too quick to tell people where they can shove it. Hmmph! Silly man.) For me, the bigger concern would be the time commitment. But the overwhelming fear I feel when I’m employed wouldn’t be there, ’cause it would be volunteer. That’s a plus.

    I used to identify as a reading teacher/specialist, and I can still recite spelling patterns in my sleep (-dge rule, anyone?), but I think that writing novels has filled that need to reach people (or it would, if I’d ever get any sales!).

  2. I have no idea how it works. I’ve worked for 13 years in the mental health field and now I can’t anymore. I’ve kinda accepted it. I wish I could still bring something to the field. I miss all of the ‘patients’. I dream about them. I have a desire to go back … ’till I hear my good, smart and reliable friend speak about his job. I know I will become more ill when I return and what then? I don’t want to pick myself up again after shattering over and over again.
    I try to look at it from a perspective that also has my best interest at heart. I hope I can find another field that I like too.
    As for the roles; for me they are shifting into different other roles and as long as I like them too I guess I will be fine. I hope so.

  3. I think I identified as a student for a long time, and a good student at that. When I went to Oxford, I was suddenly an average student among very good students, and I think my identity never really recovered. Then I was depressed for a long time, and that became a key part of my identity, which in many ways is problematic; likewise with autism more recently. Although I’ve been in and out of work since 2014, I don’t think I’ve had a strong identity as a librarian, more as a depressed and autistic person.

    Jewish identity is a whole other area for me. I identify strongly as Jewish, but I feel that I’m not a particularly good Jew, and also that there isn’t really a community where I could fit in and belong completely.

      1. That’s interesting, it didn’t really occur to me that I could identify like that! I think our relationship is going to be long-distance for a long time, although we could still have an identity together.

  4. Hmm. I guess this is one area where never having having had a “before” to any of my diagnoses, having reinvented most of the major externally defining traits about myself like my job and geographic location every few years, plus having blanked swaths of my life at times, means I’m not really sure how to comment. On the one hand…it means I can say at least in my experience that that means out of necessity my diagnoses and external mask have always been part of who I am, but clearly not all or there or there’d be almost no continuity in identity at all. But, idk, I’ve also never gotten too attached to any iteration of anything *except* the things that are consistent about me (and some of those I’ve actually tried to shed.) I actually really like where I am right now, so if I ever had 15 years to get used to that stability and *then* some new diagnosis or event upended that…yeah…that’s exactly why I tend to not trust getting attached to any given “identity” in the first place. So…yeah. What I can imagine of what you are describing with how getting sick changed things sucks and it seems totally realistic to not know entirely who you are after it. Hugs.

      1. *Cross your fingers* (Or maybe offer to be a character reference if it does go wrong on a national level come November and I decide to gamble on upending things again to try Canadian immigration!) I’m not superstitious…
        but I do have C-PTSD and if Trump wins again I fear even the East Coast might eventually become entirely too familiar with what it’s like at least from the *systemic& side to live in the 9th Circle of Hell.

  5. I identify so closely with this.
    I am working on my identities as a nurse and as mentally ill/awareness activist. I am mourning the identity that I had before I got sick, but I still treasure the identity that took its place.

  6. Wow, we related a lot to some of what your said. We were in higher education as a student, teacher, and administrator for 23 years. So student-teacher was a major role of ours. E-squared is our student-teacher me.

    The employment role ended abruptly. We had a rupture of roles. We left work early one Friday and never returned. That was more than three years ago. Feelings are unresolved and they must get in line with decades of unresolved feelings.

    One of our Ts forces us to revisit roles at home. Things we couldn’t do, we can try to do—like drive Younger Child to Doctor, even though we are scared.

    Roles are fluid. We are scared.

    You are very brave to write this post.

    Everyone is a teacher so that we can always be students. And teachers. Love you 💕

  7. I’m going through a similar thing with my identity as a student. I’ve had to take some time off University and I feel like I don’t know who I am. I’m so sorry you were a victim of workplace bullying xo

  8. I feel like I’m sitting on a fence. One side is the happy energetic slim me who had a best friend. On the other side is the struggles to do and be happy about anything. I’m fast right now as I’m unable to walk any useful distance. I lose my self in my blogs and have my dogs for company along w/ my parents and an occasional visit from my kid’s in their 20’s

  9. Hey there – Thanks so much for your blog post today – I have not thought about how my identity’s have shifted over the years but realise that it has been happening. I was a ‘client service’ ad exec before I fell ill and then I was a healer, and meditation cushion maker, then a life coach, then a children’s yoga teacher and mindfulness sharer, then a mental health support worker and now all of these things, except maybe the meditation cushion maker as I don’t do that anymore. Hence I have gotten pretty good at forming and re-forming identities. It’s one of the things that frustrates me about my life, is I never did one thing and just stuck to it. I do remember though the time my heart broke when I had to give up my coach identity and start a part time job that consumed me. And I’m strongly a healer (I’m attuned to Reiki) that’s always stayed with me. And I’m stepping into another new identity now, I have recently moved to England from South Africa and am living in the English countryside and for the first time I am being open about my mental health and offering my coaching skills and my healer skills to others with mental health challenges. I guess I have always identified with my work completely, I am my work, just like you say. Thanks again, what an interesting little exploration. #namaste

  10. Thank you for writing this post! I was thinking about this on the day you wrote it, and it was helpful. 🙂 I think mental illness is part of my identity, but I try to have other things in my life that give me other identities, too. When I don’t have other stuff to balance me out (like dancing, school work, friends, sustainability), I feel like I’m kinda drowning in mental illness, and that’s no fun.

    But the reason I was thinking about this is that recently, I’ve been tentatively including “physically disabled”/”chronically ill”/”chronic pain” in my identity… I’ve had health issues for a while, and it’s gotten to the point where they’re not “normal” anymore. I.e. Most people can walk to class without pain. I’ve started including Someone Who Takes The Elevator Instead Of The Stairs in my identity. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in how these things shift over time.

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