It would be easy to introduce myself to you and say “I’ve suffered from depression and I’ve survived suicide attempts, and I’ve rebuilt myself from the bottom up”. But to do that would be to ignore all of the other parts that make me a unique human being. I’m a daughter, a sister and a devoted friend. I’m a loyal employee who is passionate about her work. I volunteer my time to share my story with the public and to assist people in early recovery. I’m funny and sarcastic and a sore loser and I devour coffee by the pot. I’m a writer and a curious soul, always looking for answers to questions. I’m also in recovery from depression. All of these pieces, plus much more, make up my identity.
For most of my teenage years and into my early 20’s, I struggled with my identity. Within the context of my family, I was the identified patient and referred to myself as the “sick” one. Even after I left my parents’ home to live on my own, I perceived myself as either being “sick” or “well”, depending on the symptoms I was experiencing and the context within which they were occurring. These self-perceptions also played into how I sought psychiatric care. For a long time, it seemed that whenever any situation would pop up – either related or unrelated to my mental illness – I’d break down and be seemingly unable to examine the situation and strategize how to handle it or cope with it. I would inevitably turn to my psychiatrist to help me solve the problem, which at the time seemed like a natural solution to the problem but in hindsight only furthered my dependence on him and took away from my ability to think critically and independently and learn from my mistakes.
As a young adult, my identity was also wrapped up in comparisons between myself and my sibling, and myself and my high school peers. Unable (or maybe unwilling) to see myself as an independent entity, I was constantly down and angry with myself for not being able to achieve the same way my sibling had, or complete my post-secondary education in a timely fashion like my high school peers had. As I’ve learned, comparing myself to others is a self-denigrating process which only hinders my ability to be compassionate and loving toward myself. I’ve needed to break away from referring to myself as the sister who hasn’t achieved and move towards embracing a concept of myself that celebrates the accomplishments I have achieved.
Fast forward several years, dozens of depressive episodes, numerous hospitalizations and a stint in long-term residential treatment. Participating in intensive treatment for my depression opened up a realm of possibilities surrounding my identity that I had previously thought were non-existent. I began to understand myself as a being made up of many different parts, rather than as the sum total of my mental illness. Learning to see myself as a unique individual with passions and dreams allowed my identity as the “sick one” to retreat and made room for me to pursue the dreams and goals that I had put on the backburner for so long.
Examining and reformulating my identity has not been a linear process. Rather, it’s ebbed and flowed along with my recovery and has, at times, been extremely uncomfortable. But as in many other aspects of my life, the growing pains that resulted from my self-exploration have receded and opened up an entirely new paradigm from which I view myself. There are still days where I fall back on my “sick” identity, but ultimately, I’m able to reframe my situation and congratulate myself for my efforts in being able to find and embrace myself lovingly.
Rachel Cooper is a passionate advocate for mental health. She has participated in discussions with the CBC and at the University of Toronto. In recovery from depression, Rachel strives to live a meaningful and balanced life. She believes that everyone is capable of learning and using coping skills to create a life worth living.
Rachel tweets @rachbcooper.