On Identity

I’m writing this from bed as I recover from a flare up of coeliac symptoms. It started last week and since then I’ve experienced blurred vision, migraines, sickness, gastritis if I dare to eat more than a handful of food at a time, tingling nerves, shaking, swollen legs and joint pain that has made walking difficult. I’ve spent most of the past few days lying in a silent, dark room trying to sleep. I feel fortunate that my life isn’t like this constantly (I last experienced this combination in March), but it can be overwhelming – especially when I want to feel like a normal 22 year old.

Although managing a chronic illness can sometimes feel like a full-time job, I also enjoy working. Communications and outreach is my current area and I’m grateful to have been involved with socially impactful organisations full of people I admire. Student Hubs, in particular, has been a significant part of my life for four years, shaping me personally and professionally. I love my job and my colleagues, but this can mean that when my condition interferes with working life, I feel a bit lost. I’m used to measuring my days in how many items I tick off in Todoist (a productivity game-changer), not how many minutes it takes for me to walk down the stairs. This has made me recognise that it’s important to build my identity beyond my job title or where I spend my weekdays, especially in a society that normalises asking ‘What do you do?’ before ‘How are you?’

Outside of work and regardless of my illness, I’m a friend, sister, daughter, granddaughter, niece, cousin, housemate, neighbour and volunteer. I’ve been a girlfriend, an ex-girlfriend and an ex-girlfriend-turned-friend. My heritage is Scottish and Irish via Liverpool, Birmingham, Wales and Kent, but I grew up in Sussex and sound that way. I can appear extroverted when necessary but I need dedicated introvert time to regain energy. I’m a left-wing, pro-choice, intersectional feminist. I’m also vegan for personal, environmental and ethical reasons. (Essentially, I’m UKIP’s nightmare.)

I studied English and History as an undergraduate and I’m starting a part-time MA in Arts and Cultural Management in September. I love getting absorbed in an idea or a narrative, so I read every day, even if it’s just a few pages of a book or a couple of articles. I write (journal entries, notes in books, songs, poems and now blog posts) when I have something to say or need to process. I talk about critical theory and climate change with friends over dinner. I play the guitar a little bit and I tend to sing and dance whilst I cook. I like indie music and Taylor Swift. I stray into Manic Pixie Dream Girl territory, but I’m not one.

I sacrificed some of these aspects of myself to an eating disorder for a while and now I’ve reclaimed them. Spending two months going through recovery and coeliac diagnosis last summer forced me to figure out who I am when I’m not balancing lots of commitments at once. Although I wouldn’t wish that experience on anyone, it taught me to remember that even if I’m ill and unemployed, I’m still caring, interesting and important. We’re all bound to be unwell or out of work at some point in our lives, so it’s a lesson worth noting.

Also worth noting is Nora Ephron’s advice on identity in her commencement address to the Wellesley College Class of 1996, featured as an essay in this book. Nora (it feels too impersonal to call her ‘She’ or ‘Ephron’) says:

‘[Y]ou are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever. We have a game we play when we’re waiting for tables in restaurants, where you have to write the five things that describe yourself on a piece of paper. When I was your age, I would have put: ambitious, Wellesley graduate, daughter, Democrat, single. Ten years later not one of those things turned up on my list. I was: journalist, feminist, New Yorker, divorced, funny. Today not one of those things turns up on my list: writer, director, mother, sister, happy. Whatever those five things are for you today, they won’t make the list in ten years – not that you won’t still be some of those things, but they won’t be the five most important things about you.’

I love this and return to it when I’m feeling in doubt, off track or, as was the case this week, like coeliac disease is taking over my life. Although I have a core sense of self that stays with me, it’s good to remember that identity is adaptable and not restricted by my past or current circumstances. We should hope to change, grow and challenge ourselves often. That said, we should also give ourselves a break when we need it. I’m going to take another nap.

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