Making Meaning of the Self: Does Illness Really Take it Away?

"Since being diagnosed with my illness, I no longer know who I am . So much has changed in my life. My daily routine is different, my energy levels completely altered, my physical strength diminished, my sleep tampered with, and my sense of self confused. Am I even the same person? I don't know who I am anymore."

Sound familiar? Such an experience is not uncommon for many people who live with chronic physical illness. Oftentimes living with an illness requires so much adjustment in a person's life that it can shake one's sense of self, leaving one to question who s/he is. A person may feel a tremendous sense of loss of who s/he perceived him/her self to be, and may experience profound sadness, confusion, and anger, as s/he is left trying to hold on to a sense of "I."  At times, the person may even view the period of pre-illness as the time when s/he was truly what s/he is, and the post-illness period as the space in which the experience of "my self" no longer exists.

Is the self really lost though? Was there ever really just one experience of what your self is or means? This is a difficult question for all people, regardless of living with chronic illness or not, but especially when living with chronic illness as the illness has forced so many adjustments and losses into one's life. Is it possible to think about the different aspects of who you are? Perhaps a person who was very physical and active, such as a gymnast, can no longer engage in any physical activity. It is common in such a situation for this person to feel as if who s/he was is no more. It can be easy to forget about all the other ways in which this person experienced him/her self before the illness. This person may also have defined him/her self as a very social person or as a person with a big imagination or as a person who others looked to for advice, or as a person who felt elated when listening to music. Yet when a big loss is experienced, it can feel as if your entire self is gone, despite this not necessarily being true.

The idea of self as being comprised of one core thing within a person, can be an injustice to the very beauty of what it means to be human. Like it or not, the experience of living with illness is now also a part of one's selfhood, but that does not mean that now one's self is solely defined as the self of illness, or the sick person self, or the self who can no longer do. It means that this is now an added piece of one's experience, which may have led to many losses but which may have also left many pre-existing aspects of who one is completely intact and ready to be attended to. Do not forget those aspects of yourself. What are they? What are all the various components that make you you? This can be a challenging task when one's daily life gets consumed by dealing with the illness, but it is not an impossible task. It requires meaning making. The parts of a person that are gone are not lost within the person, they must however take on new meaning. Other aspects of the person that may have been previously taken for granted or ignored may now be infused with great significance.

This perspective is not to be confused with a naive Pollyanna approach that it is simple to open new doors when one closes. Meaning making can be a very difficult process and requires the active choice to embark on the journey. Sometimes a person can do it alone and other times it may require one to ask others for help in making new meaning of one's understanding of self.  Oftentimes talking with friends or loved ones about this can be of great benefit. Many times, this process of meaning making may require you to speak with a psychotherapist, particularly if one is really struggling to see any aspects of him/her self besides the aspects that feel gone. In general, the process of meaning making can be facilitated much easier with the assistance of a supportive and attentive other.

Does the illness really take the self away? It may truly feel like it very strongly and most of the time. But despite the illness perhaps taking away many concrete aspects of one's life, it can never take away one's continuing capacity to make meaning of one's sense of self.