The emotional weight of migraine has been especially heavy for me in the last month and, really, in the last year. The morphing and unrelenting stress has ratcheted up my migraine attack frequency and the attacks often include depression-like symptoms. My thoughts have swirled around how small my life feels and how much unrealized potential migraine has left me with.
It was the perfect time to watch In & Of Itself, a film adaptation of an off-Broadway show that’s now available on Hulu. This description from Linda Holmes on NPR is better than any summary I could write: “It’s about seeing people and being seen by them, and about how your own narrative of who you are — I AM a novelist, I AM a gamechanger — collides with stories about who you are that you didn’t get to write.”
“I AM” in the quote refers to cards that audience members choose at the start of the show. They are arranged on a wall and include an array of identities a person could align with: tourist, organizer, leader, mother, life of the party, entomologist…
As the identities came up throughout the show, I couldn’t help but wonder which I would choose. Truth-teller, resilient, and authentic were top of mind. But then I thought about what identities others would choose for me. Would sick be at the top of the list? It feels these days like that’s all anyone can see of me. Or is that illness feels like it dominates my life and because it’s all that I see of myself, I’m projecting that onto everyone around me?
I know that if I asked my loved ones to describe me, sick wouldn’t be the first thing anyone said. It would be present, but as an addendum. They’d say I’m a kind, driven optimist whose ambition has been constrained by migraine. Or that I’m so resilient and determined that I’ve learned how to live as well as possible despite the many challenges of chronic migraine. I know this because people have told me so. And yet.
Even though I do believe them, the pall of migraine covers everything right now. I am not migraine. I do not want to be defined by migraine. I felt like I had a good grasp on the difference between migraine and me when I wrote about this very topic on Migraine.com in Is migraine part of my identity? Yet, here I am, just a few months later, feeling flattened by migraine once again.
In & Of Itself reminded me that I am a mass of beliefs, thoughts, concepts, identities. Who others perceive me to be is shaped by their beliefs, thoughts, concepts, identities. No one is only one piece of their lives. No one is truly who others perceive them to be.
I cannot only be migraine even when it feels like it is all that I am. I cannot tell my story without all the pieces of me speaking up. I wouldn’t be sharing my experience with migraine so openly if I weren’t a truth-teller. I wouldn’t feel so connected to my authenticity through words if I weren’t a writer. I wouldn’t have found contentment (most of the time) in a life with chronic migraine if I weren’t so driven (that trait that I grieve being unable to apply to the career I wasn’t able to have).
My therapist would say “I am” is the most important part of the cards. What follows doesn’t matter. We are all worthy of love and belonging simply because we are. That’s where I’m trying to put my thoughts today instead of being bogged down by the details.
2 thoughts on “I am: Identity and chronic illness”
I’m glad you wrote about how loved ones would describe you. Before I got to that paragraph, I was thinking that “sick” wouldn’t even make it onto the list of descriptions for you. I know it is always there for you, but you live with migraine in such a way that it is not always there for those around you, and that says more about you than migraine could.
This is not to say that you hide from it or hide it from others—you obviously don’t—but you hold it as part of your life while being so many other things that leap to my mind first: smart, kind, thoughtful, wise, and funny are just a few.
Thank you, Katie!