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 various 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. I enjoyed being a student 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, 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?
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