More Thoughts on Identity

There are plenty of labels and titles used to assign and confuse our sense of identity. Male, female, husband, wife, widow, single, married, father, mother, childless, son, daughter, brother, sister, only child, and friend. Adjectives also serve this purpose. Beautiful, plain, ugly, happy, sad, funny, depressed, selfish, and giving. Jobs and careers do the same. Perceptions of illness and wellness are also part of the picture. I live with words like patient, survivor, thriver, lifer, metavivor, warrior, and numerous others.

Interests and beliefs both differentiate the narrow scope of labels and titles. Here true identity may lie if you are lucky enough to truly “Know Thyself.” Learning and teaching are two of my core beliefs and huge interest areas. I love reading, writing, and thinking. My interests branch out to other areas. I feel good when I exercise. Listening to Bon Jovi makes me feel just as good as John Denver folk songs. I am interested in nature photography and hiking outdoors. I love time with my friends and family. A good chocolate dessert or caramel is savored.

Identity must be a combination of all these things combined, each like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. A puzzle really takes on many aspects of the self. Neither is complete without all the pieces. Woe to the puzzle doer to near the end of a puzzle and realize a piece is missing. You know what that piece is and how it will complete the picture, but it still isn’t the same. It’s almost complete, or as complete as it can be, but it just isn’t the same as irrefutably complete, done, and finished. It is very troubling when a person’s identity is missing a piece or two from the puzzle. It may seem obvious what piece is needed to go into the empty space, but everyone still wants to find it to finish the puzzle and make it whole before moving on to the next puzzle.

Maybe we even have a tough time seeing our true selves. It all gets very muddled. Someone else cannot tell you who you are. Identity, strength, and happiness are all inside jobs. It’s very challenging because so many outside factors influence who we are. Those labels, socioeconomic status, who we know, where we live, and even ancestry all are puzzle pieces.

It’s with friends that none of these other definers really matter. People do not say so and so is my friend because they were really good at self-care, took remarkable pictures, or could fix a flat tire. My friends are my friends because of a shared past and the similar interests and values we still share today and hopefully will share well into our futures. We laugh, we help one another, and we are just there to support one another. These are the qualities that transcend all the names, titles, adjectives, actions, and changes over time. Your true inner qualities always remain.

I can’t fix a flat. I hope that admission hasn’t cost me any friendships.

Back to the question, Who AM I? The AM changes over time. Just as the land changes over time, so do we. The Grand Canyon in its infancy was not a canyon at all but instead the great Colorado River flowing southward through Arizona. It is really an awesome feat in physiology how humans change from infants, to children, then young adults, and then through so many different stages of adulthood. And that’s only on the outside.

Thoughts, words, actions, core beliefs, and values all converge together in the I AM. I AM giving. I AM a reader, writer, and thinker. I AM a storyteller. I AM someone who enjoys the outdoors. I AM someone who enjoys the indoors, too. I AM someone who likes to laugh.

I AM loved.

I AM me.

I wrote an I AM poem back in 2012 and posted it back in May, Ideas definitely revolve around identity. You can read it here.

Living as someone with metastatic breast cancer is only one way I continue to define myself, but I don’t want that to be the first thing that people notice about me. An illness shouldn’t define anyone. Others can’t define you in terms of an illness. Unfortunately, illness seems to be the domino poised to cause others to fall.

Figuring out who I am as I navigate identity amidst medical treatments and side effects seems like a never-ending onion where a new layer is continually being peeled back and makes me cry. What doesn’t change is that I am always whole. What if instead of an onion being peeled, I was a tree that kept adding ring after ring with each passing year that told my story? I see a strong mighty oak firmly rooted in the earth that is solid and has witnessed much. Older but wiser. Unflappable. Still there. Bigger. Changes are inevitable, but I choose to see myself as whole and complete with whatever changes that life brings my identity.

There is a Quaker wisdom to “Let your life speak.” It means to let your highest truths and values guide your choices. Who I am lies in my truths and choices that begin as thoughts and materialize as actions. Love, joy, kindness, and making a difference is who I am, and who I will always be. My life will continue to speak.

Committing to the Hat

One thing that drives me crazy lately is wearing a hat. It is winter and hat wearing weather. On the pro side, it keeps me toasty warm. I am a fan of toasty warm. On the con side, taking off the hat usually shifts my wig. It has to be done carefully. One hand has to glide up past my forehead and underneath said hat. It rests between the hat and my hair, anchoring it in place. It doesn’t always work. It has become one of many extra processes in my life. It makes me feel self-conscious. I am not a fan of self-conscious.

When I put on a hat, I have to really commit to the hat. You see, I may have it on for a while. Even if I get hot, I don’t feel like I can easily take it off without possibly drawing attention to myself. The reality is probably no one is looking at me. But there’s still the self-conscious thing.

Committing to the hat is just one more thing I have to do. It’s one of the behind the scene consequences of living with cancer. Others include my independent pharmacy of mostly supplements that I ingest several times a day that I believe help me, neupogen injections every weekend to boost white cell counts, feeling anxious about many social situations, not knowing how I’ll feel when I wake up, and juggling an ever-changing schedule of appointments and such.

Committing in general has been up in the air over the past several years. Everything is more uncertain. Maybe that’s why the hat is harder to wear.

Ironically, I need to commit to uncertainty.

A hat seems like such a small thing. But it’s a small thing over which I would rather exercise some control. Control is a big thing for a lot of people. Some try to control other people through a position where they do not know how to be a successful leader. We can’t control how others respond. Ineffective leaders are met with lack of respect and people who undermine them in order to do what is needed. People who seek to manipulate in relationships are still alone inside. Others try to control themselves through self-destructive acts. Yes, we are responsible for our choices. A decision to inflict hurt on yourself is not within your control or a choice. It is the polar opposite of self-love. I have come across a few people in my life who have struggled with self-love. I can’t control them. I can show up for them with love, friendship, and support.

The hat is also about control– my need for control over something where I don’t have it. I’ve really not had much control since diagnosis.

Anyone have a hat for that?

Uncertainty and lack of control go together like chocolate and peanut butter.

Chocolate and peanut butter are better.

I’d love to pal around in a vintage hat of the 1920s, go back in time, and meet my grandma when she was younger. It would have to be a special time traveling hat. We’d be friends. I imagine meeting at what was known back in the day as Stevens Point Normal School where she went for teaching certification. I’d love to see her passion of one of our shared interests and how her youth and experiences shaped the years when I knew her.

I don’t care for the cancer hats, the kinds that are knitted or ordered through cancer magazines and online. This includes bandanas and scarves. They all are just so obvious. When I wore those years ago, I was fine with them, both physically and emotionally comfortable. It was too bad if others had a problem seeing me that way. Now, they are more of a reminder of loss. I am very aware of my losses and don’t need visual reminders. I am not some sort of public service announcement either. The cancer hat I wear is invisible, but it is part of that uncertainty and lack of control.

In fact, I still don’t know how to refer to myself. You think I would after nearly seven years. Am I a survivor? A thriver? The survivor label is used for someone who has been treated for cancer and thought to be cancer free. The thriver label is used to distinguish those who will never be thought of as survivors . . . yet. I’m not sure where this began. Perhaps it was well-intentioned. Perhaps it was designed out of need to give some of that sought after control back to people’s lives. However, there is even some discomfort within the cancer community itself with the term. As a result of that discomfort, sometimes thrivers are not included in discussions or are isolated into their own group because there is worry they will scare others, not have any similar needs in common with survivors, and be of no help. Abigail Johnston explains it better in her blog post Early Stagers vs. Metastatic Patients. Take a moment to read it!

Right now, I think I can wear both those hats. I’m surviving and thriving. Maybe I’m a driver (for change), a striver (for health), a troublemaking conniver (just because). I’m definitely feeling a Lin-Manuel vibe. At the same time, I really don’t like being labeled. Just let me be me.

And there it is . . . the reason I don’t know how to refer to myself.

Just let me be me.

Don’t call me anything. What bothers me is others who want to tell me what I am. Some are very firm about it. We’re all different. The survivor hat may not work for one person, but work really well for someone else.

If I could choose a hat, I would choose a sun hat. I can pull off a wide-brimmed sun hat and wear it well. I like that because with proper sunshades I can people watch (stare at people) and no one knows that’s what I’m doing (until now). Keeping cool in the hot sun is a priority, too. My fair complexion freckles and I burn easily. I must do what I can to remain youthful looking. Medications also require avoiding time in direct sun.

My favorite hat is a cream wool winter hat I used to wear with the brim flipped up. I guess it’s called a bucket hat (think Paddington Bear). I wore it during a golden time when all was well in my life. It looked cute on me. I had no problems committing to that hat. It was functional, attractive, and easy to wear. Stylistically, it was very simple and matched with many of my coats. My life was also much simpler when I wore it, but I’m sure I didn’t realize it because I didn’t know what I know now.

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Are there any positives to committing to the hat?

People who have let go of control seem to be happier. You can love and accept things as they are without a need to fix something. Surrendering control may present opportunities to relax. You may find you get what you need. Controlling less and doing less may give you more. Committing to the hat, committing to uncertainty, can help a person commit to more freedom. Spontaneity can take pressure off from a lot of choices. Do you want to know something? When I started this paragraph, I really didn’t think I was going to find a way to reframe this hat thing in a positive way. Anything is possible.

Committing to freedom, to relaxing, to ultimately receiving more of what I need all sound a lot better than wearing uncertainty day after day after day.

I know for everyone else wearing a hat doesn’t cause a second thought. It shouldn’t. Well, maybe it should cause pause for some folks because there are people who adorn some very questionable hat choices in my book. Remember though, it isn’t really about the hat. One last thing the hat is about is recognizing that there are things people do that aren’t visible on the surface. Everyone has these. Everyone has uncertainty. Everyone just wants to have the comfort of a hat that fits really well. My favorite cream hat calls.