Reprinted from GoodTherapy.org
By Tammy Fletcher MA, IMF, CFT, Body-Mind Psychotherapy Topic Expert
This article builds on the discussion in my last Topic Expert article where we explored the experience of new diagnosis and its effect on emotional wellbeing. Another way in which receiving a diagnosis, either psychological or medical, impacts us is in terms of identity.
Coming to terms with identity can be challenging for anyone. Developing an understanding of “who we are” is a lifelong process. Our sense of self solidifies as we age and gain life experience, however, that same life experience brings fluidity to identity. For example, a young girl struggles through her teenage years to become a young woman. A man in his 20’s goes from student to husband to father. An elderly couple moves from long-term relationship to widowhood. Cocktail party information looks like “Hi, I’m Jane. I’m a _______” – filling in the blank with your occupation, your family or marital status, your project du jour. All little pieces of what make up your identity.
Life is a series of changes, and as we move and adapt through what life brings us, our sense of who we are in the world shifts as well. Twenty-two years ago, I was a wife, a friend, a daughter. In a heartbeat (plus 13 hours of labor), I became something entirely new – a mom. I welcomed this identity shift, and while it was certainly new and sometimes even scary, there was support and advice everywhere I turned. It was an expected and celebrated change. I was still me, but this new life experience permanently altered my sense of self.
A few years later, I had another instant identity shift. A grim-faced neurologist sat down and told me, “You have multiple sclerosis.” Me? But I had things to do, a daughter to raise, a book ready to publish. This unwelcome verdict and whatever the heck it had in store for me was not in the plan. Right. Try telling that to a diagnosis. “Um….hi. I have other plans. Can you come back later? Or better yet, not at all?”
Sometimes life thrusts upon us the mother of all life changes – a serious medical or psychological diagnosis. As both a patient myself and a mental health clinician, I have seen the impact of diagnostic conclusions, and how we struggle to regain our footing. My last article outlined the logistics of a new diagnosis, including how to talk to your doctor and where to find more information to help you become an informed consumer. Now, let’s talk about the impact of a diagnosis after the calls have been made, the treatments scheduled, and the news begun to sink in.
“Who am I now? I was Mark. Now I am Mark, the-guy-who-just-had-a-heart attack. People treat me differently. My life changed, and of course I changed. But I am still Mark. Right?”
“I knew I had some problems with depression, but hearing ‘It’s Bipolar II Disorder’…wow. Now I’m officially a ‘psych patient.’ I stopped trying to explain it to people when I saw the look on their faces. Like I’m contagious. My therapist tells me to accept it and move on, make the best of it. How do I do that?”
“I’m an addict. I get that. Sometimes I want to be just ME again. I am not sure who that is now.”
Sometimes, receiving a diagnosis can feel like the person you were prior to the news doesn’t exist anymore. Or exists in such an altered state that you have trouble recognizing yourself. Friends, family, co-workers, and even your clinical support team have their own ideas about your diagnosis. Cancer, Major Depression, Lupus, Schizophrenia, Traumatic Brain Injury….the list is endless and the perceptions about each vary widely, influenced by each person’s personal experience, culture, exposure in the media, and personal beliefs about illness in general. It can be a challenge to dig yourself out of a mountain of perceptions, labels, and misinformation to re-connect again with people in your life, and with yourself.
Some suggestions that may help you through the process of physical or psychological illness:
1) Stages of Grief – Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross outlined five stages that many people experience after loss. These stages can apply to any major life change, as well. From job loss to divorce to learning you are facing physical or mental illness, you may go through Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. The stages do not always appear in order, and reaching the Acceptance stage doesn’t mean that you may not slip back into Anger or another stage. Those feelings are part of the process.
2) Find support – Whether you join a support group of others facing similar circumstances, or seek individual therapy, bolster yourself with support in whatever way works for you. Patients need emotional support after receiving serious health news. Family and friends may be dealing with the diagnosis in their own ways. Before worry, isolation, or depression take hold, reach out to others for support.
3) Find ways to still be you – Treatments, lab tests, hospitalization, appointments, side effects…all these can crowd into your reality and leave little time or energy left. You are still you. If you love music, take your iPod with you to an appointment. If reading relaxes you, visit the library or ask a friend to bring you some reading material. Books on CDs are available if reading is difficult. Stay connected to what matters in your life.
4) When loved ones offer to help, let them – People often don’t know what to say or do when a friend is ill, but they would like to help. Sitting and talking, driving you to an appointment, throwing in a load of laundry or bringing a meal – all are little ways to stay connected to others who are important in your life.
It would be false to assure you that everything stays exactly the same after you have been handed a significant medical or psychological diagnosis. Every piece of information we take in changes us somehow, and this one is a doozy. You may feel overwhelmed with information about what to expect. Remember, this is your journey. No one else’s will be exactly the same. The diagnosis impacts you; however, you also impact the disease or condition. You come to the table with your own set of strengths, experiences, and goals.
Dealing with mental or physical illness changes us. What we do with that is up to us. I chose to grow and find the life lessons hidden underneath the label of illness. However, I refuse to be the label. I have multiple sclerosis. It does not have me. That part of my journey involved conscious choice, and yours can too. Be kind to yourself as you go through any disease process. Allow it to teach you about yourself, others, and what matters most in your life. It’s okay to feel overwhelmed, angry, and to wish sometimes it would just go away. Stay anchored through those feelings and know that you are a person, not a diagnosis.