What is your main identity? And would it be wise to try and shift or change your identity a little? In order to tackle these questions, first we need to be clear about what we mean with the word “identity”.
We could complicate this by making a difference between your “self” (how you see yourself, privately) and your “identity” (how you present yourself to others, publicly). But let’s forget that kind of nuances here: for most of us, your private “self” and your public “identity” will largely overlap anyway – unless you’re a kind of actor or a con artist, that is.
So let us keep this simple. If I surprise you with the question “What are you?” and you give me a honest and spontaneous answer, then your answer will be a brief indication of your main identity.
For example, suppose you answer “I’m a happily married economist with two children” then I will assume this is your main identity, the core of it. In this example, it is about relationship (happily married), profession (economist), and parenthood (with two children).
Of course we can have many secondary elements in our identity too, part time identities so to speak, like being secretary of the local hockey club. Together, your main identity and such other elements form your more-or-less complete identity. By and large, this is how you see yourself and how others see you.
Depression and Identity
Any long term illness will have the nasty effect of changing your identity, and usually in a negative way. If the economist from my example gets a chronic heart condition or severe diabetes, he may not be able to work anymore, being forced to concentrate on coping with his illness. His core identity may shift to something like “I’m a former economist with a heart condition.”
Chronic, long-term depression does the same kind of thing to us. Only worse, because depression (like any form of mental illness) has a strong negative stigma. Put bluntly, depression makes you think very negative about yourself, which in turn makes you even more depressed: a downward spiral.
In the end, depression can overgrow most of your former identity until it is so bad you can only blurt out “I’m a depression patient.” At that point, depression has become your main identity.
And this, in turn, can only worsen the downward spiral.
This downward spiral is a common effect: it was confirmed by three psychologists (Yanos, Roe and Lysaker) in a 2010 research article The Impact of Illness Identity on Recovery from Severe Mental Illness. In their summary they say:
“We propose that accepting a definition of oneself as mentally ill and assuming that mental illness means incompetence and inadequacy impact hope and self-esteem, which further impact suicide risk, coping, social interaction, vocational functioning, and symptom severity. Evidence supports most of the predictions made by the model.”
What To Do
So if we have been a depression patient for a long time, we should (as part of an overall recovery strategy) clearly recognize that depression may have eaten away parts of our former healthy identity; and we should try to somehow recover a few parts of our former healthy identity.
Exactly how to do this will depend from many factors such as your situation, your former identity, the type and phase of your depression. This makes it a little difficult to outline one general strategy that will work for everyone. But let me stress three general points.
1. Once it has become clear to yourself that your present main identity has degenerated into “I’m a depression patient”, try to recall – however painful this may be – exactly what your full positive identity used to be back in happier times.
Try to chart your former identity as complete as possible: list the main elements (such as relation, occupation or an all-important hobby) and also the secondary elements (things like a club membership, a movie-watching habit, whatever).
2. Convince yourself of one simple truth: the fact that you have depression does not mean that you are depression. Being a depression patient is just a part of you. It has not completely filled the rest of your identity, but rather it has left the rest of it empty and barren.
That empty part of your present identity can (and should) be filled with something positive again.
3. Be realistic. Fully restoring your former identity may be impossible: perhaps main elements such as your former relationship or job simply do not even exist anymore.
So what you should try to do is single out one or two identity elements, main or secondary, that to some extent might be restorable. Like taking up an old hobby again. Try to think of something you could actually do to gain back just a little of your former identity.
My Own Example
Please allow me to do something I don’t do often here: using my own situation as an example.
10 years ago, I was hospitalized for severe and long-term depression. In the couple of years that followed, with electroshock treatments and all, much of my former identity was destroyed. Both the marriage I had in happier times, and the university job I had (teaching, writing books, doing historical research) did not survive those years of horror. These main parts of my identity have gone forever.
Being a depression patient has become an undeniable part of my identity. Luckily I’m doing much better now than 10 years ago, though I have periodic lapses and still need medication. In this situation I’ve come to realize that being a depression patient should not become the only part of my identity. I realized that it would be better for myself, and also help to curb downward spirals, to fill in some empty, desolate, long-neglected parts of my identity again.
May I use a metaphor? See your identity as a house. Once, long ago, you lived in all the rooms of this house, using it all from cellar to attic. Long-term depression makes you live in the narrow space of the kitchen, permanently. You never set foot in any of the other rooms anymore. While you’re trying to survive in your depression kitchen, the rest of the house gets dusty and empty, falls into disrepair. Depression makes you think, wrongly, that the depression-kitchen is all that’s left of your identity-house. But is it?
In my case, the practical solution was to open a door to one of the other rooms: to see if I could recover a little of the “I’m a historian” element that used to be part of my former main identity. I cannot restore it full-time and not professionally anymore, but will take it more like a hobby. A hobby that (I hope) will prevent me from permanently reducing myself solely to “I’m a depression patient”.
This, in short, is the reason why last month I’ve been busy with kickstarting a new, second blog that is primarily about history of mental health. Not exclusively focusing on depression anymore, like I will keep doing here. I will now also be trying to regain a little bit of my former “I’m a historian” focus and identity.
Of course your own situation, background and depression troubles can be completely different from mine. But I am fairly sure that each of us can find a long-neglected identity element, one that can be rebooted in such a way that depression will no longer the single element dominating your identity. I am sure you can find something that will shift your identity from “I’m a depression patient” towards “I’m a depression patient, but I also try to ……………”
First chart your former full identity, as suggested above, and then pick one element from that list that might be restorable, albeit to a limited extent (and of course with some effort).
Re-extending your identity will not diminish your depression right away, and will certainly not cure it by itself. But that re-opened door can feel like a small kind of liberation: even if it’s only ajar, it can bring you a breath of fresh air.
At the very least, re-extending your identity (even if only for a little bit) will halt the ever more negative downward spiral into a purely negative self-image.
What more can I say? First be aware of your present identity as a depression patient, and then think about reclaiming a little of your former identity. Give it a try. It will give you some satisfaction even it doesn’t work out as you hoped: the satisfaction of having tried.
• tip: Instead of just defining yourself as “I’m a depression patient”, begin to define yourself as “I’m a depression patient, but I am also a …………..” (fill in some part of your former identity)
• footnote: Did you guess the identities of the faceless people in this post?
From top to bottom:
1. “I’m a physicist and I like jokes” (Albert Einstein)
2. “I’m a movie star and I love to be loved” (Marilyn Monroe)
3. “I’m a rocker and deep down I’m really sweet” (Elvis Presley)
4. “I’m a charity nun and a good fundraiser” (Mother Teresa)
5. Here I cheated. This is one you just cannot know.
Author: Henk van Setten