Navigating Chronic Illness & Identity

Incorporating illness into our identities appropriately can be disorienting and confusing. Whether you’re dealing with a brand new diagnosis or have been dealing with issues for decades, it can feel like walking a tightrope. In my personal experience and with clients it seems like we can fluctuate and process through a couple of different stages/levels of acceptance.

At the one end of the spectrum is a complete and utter denial of the facts of our illnesses. Completely rejecting the real effects and limitations these conditions place on us, and even an active attempt to prove the illness wrong (I spent years and years in this place and have only semi-recently come out of this. Spoiler alert: this never works). Being in this place can and frequently does make our conditions worse. I spent so much time and energy trying to prove that I could, even with a chronic illness, be “normal” and even outdo my other “normal” peers, which in turn lead to harder burnouts and more debilitating flares.

On the other end of the spectrum is the opposite of denial, and a place that many of us with chronic illness fear, thinking that it’s the only alternative. This is a place where we “become” our illnesses. Where it becomes the primary defining characteristics of our lives and identities. A dull place where we “admit defeat” and see the entire world through a lens of illness, all the time. This place can be equally as scary for me and feels a lot like victim mentality

The great news? There are more than two options. There’s a middle-ground I’ve started referring to as integration (which I’m sure is reflective of many psychological models on grief, processing, and identity). Here we can engage in ongoing acceptance of our limitations while not becoming those limitations. It’s a healthy place where we understand our illness as an important part of ourselves, but just a part nonetheless.

As someone who has lived with chronic illness for the majority of my life, I can tell you I am constantly fluctuating along the integration continuum and take occasional dips into all of the places. It’s a constant process as life and chronic illness are non-linear; constantly changing and requiring frequent recalibration. It took me a really long time to realize that giving my illness the appropriate place in my life and identity wouldn’t result in my total demise. In fact, it has opened up an entirely new and awesome life.

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