Yes, I’m having an identity crisis. No, it’s not the one you think.
September 11th 2014 I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
That Thursday morning, after I finished giving a talk, I took a call from my doctor and took the rest of the afternoon off. With that call, an ancillary characteristic of me became the focal point of my next 4 months.
Mammograms. Get them. No, really, stop here and write yourself a note.
Because my cancer was caught early, I had the luxury of time to consider options… I scheduled my surgery 6 weeks out. Immediately after a conference I was planning.
Spoiler. I’m lucky. Extraordinarily lucky.
I chose a double mastectomy because the most important outcome for me was “event free survival”. I was graced all the best possible outcomes. The surgical pathology found nothing in my lymph nodes except tattoo ink. I needed no chemo; no radiation.
The struggle. What is my identity?
But, what I want to talk about is the question I was asked most in both the lead up to surgery and post surgery. “Are you having an identity crisis?”
No, I’m not having an identity crisis. But, what do you mean by “my identity”? To me, this question presumed a lot about the value of women in society. After all, no one asked me about my identity when i got my appendix out or when I broke my foot.
I am… No, really, what is my identity?
I am what I do. How I contribute to the world. How I support my friends and my partner. I am a thinker. I am a creator. I am a community member. I am a supporter. I am a traveler.
I am confused.
And everyone kept asking “Are you having an identity crisis?”
Suddenly, in spheres where I expected to be valued for my contribution i had to introduce conversations about my secondary sexual characteristics
How Would i know?
I continued to answer “No, i’m not having an identity crisis. I went back to work 3 weeks after the surgery. I was actually *happier* with my shape than before the surgery. But, I couldn’t think. I had no stamina. I had the attention span of a single crossword puzzle clue.
Who am I? Crap, I *am* having an identity crisis.
If I can’t write an articulate sentence, or i’m 3000 emails behind, or if I can’t meet a commitment I made … Am I less? Am I me? What is my value?
Societal cues suck.
With my internal cues failing, I looked outside. But, I am not my shape or my bank account. I am not only my accomplishments. Media and peer groups amplify fears to persuade and control. Societal cues seem to support the voices in my head that said I wasn’t good enough. Advertising suggests I *need* to purchase things to be smarter or prettier or stronger. It supports my feelings of inadequacy and imposter syndrome. “I’m not as smart as they are”. “I’m not $measure as she is…”
Fear Manifest. I’m not good enough.
When I was asked “Are you having an identity crisis?” I heard fears that my friends had bought into. Fears that our values were tied to specific characteristics.
I’m an adult struggling with this. I have had years to evaluate and decide what I value in myself. And, yet, being asked “Are you having an identity crisis” challenged me. What are we reflecting to the younger people around us. What about the next generations? What are our biases teaching them? Can we stop them from absorbing our fears and societal expectations?
My brain returned, and I could see my stamina increasing. Life began to return to normal. I could hold a conversation. I could stay up past 6pm. I was 2 pounds closer to being a fierce skinny old lady.
I am changed. And still prone to over commitment. As I struggled with this identity question, my step father quippily reminded me that we are human be-ings not human do-ings.
Today, I try to treat myself as I would treat a friend. Valuing my be-ing without judgement even as what i do in the world changes.