Catherine Gracey

Living Life, One Misadventure At A Time.

An Identity Walked Into an Abyss

on January 20, 2015

I was recently discussing the concept of an abyss and chronic illness, and I have been asked to write down what I was talking about. The conversation started with one of my favourite quotes from Nietzsche:

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein.

It translates into the well known:

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And when you gaze long into an abyss the abyss also gazes into you.

Our identity is a fluid, continually evolving thing. The different components of our identity rise and fall in importance depending on the context and their relevance, and the roles those components play vary accordingly. There are aspects of our identity that do not change, and there are aspects that come and go. For instance, I have always been and will always be a woman. This is an aspect of my identity that doesn’t have much importance if I am reading a book or playing with the dog, but it becomes critically important if I decide to bring a new life into the world. On the other hand, my identity as someone who writes computer code is relatively new, and will only remain for as long as I continue to write code.

Illness is something that attaches to our identity. If we are infected with a cold, we do not express it in that way; instead we say “I am sick”. It has become an attribute of who we are, with the same phrasing as saying “I am blonde” or “I am hungry”. For most people in most instances, this addition to our identity is removed in a few days, perhaps after a week, and our identity changes again. We say “I am better” or something similar, and are able to replace the negative identifier with a new, positive one.

When illness is not cured, however, we don’t go through the process of restoring our former identity as someone who is not sick. The longer we wear that negative badge, the deeper it presses on us, into us. We are used to shaking off illness in a negligible amount of time, and so this new aspect rises in importance. “I am sick” is a statement that needs to be dealt with now, not in a day, a week, a month or a year. It is more important than identifying statements such as “I play tennis on Tuesdays” or “each year I go hiking through the mountains for a week”.

As illness continues it becomes chronic illness. This is the place where identity begins to suffer. It has been at the top of your awareness for so long that other aspects of your identity are stripped away. How can you call yourself someone who plays tennis on Tuesdays when you haven’t stepped onto the court in six months? Are you really someone who goes hiking through the mountains every year when you’ve told your friends that you will sit this one out?

With every realisation of what we have lost, we step closer to our personal abyss. “Who am I?” is a question that has to be asked. If the only way you can answer this question is to say “I am someone who is sick” then you are staring into the abyss. You have given it too much attention, too much importance, and now it is consuming you.

None of us want to stare into that abyss. It means seeing all we have lost, all that has been sacrificed, and all that might never be again. You realise that “hitting rock bottom” is a myth spread by people who think they were there only because they have no idea of the many things they still have left to lose. But you know, and if you stare into the abyss then you find yourself wondering what else will be sucked into it. As long as you keep breathing, there is still more to lose.

Stepping back from the abyss is the most obvious thing to do, and it is the focus of many programs that are designed to help people with chronic conditions. You might not be able to say that you play tennis on Tuesdays ever again, but you can still say that you enjoy listening to Mozart during dinner or reading XKCD cartoons. It is a conscious process to push the illness down your list of priorities, to see all of the things that remain, and to embrace what is left.

The problem with this type of therapy is that it will never solve the real problem, which is being sick. Life becomes a carefully constructed series of behaviours and habits that provide equilibrium. We hold the stories that we tell ourselves like a talisman to ward off further evil. “If I do all of these things, I can get through the day.” We have stopped fighting the monster, and instead we have struck a deal with it. Consciously ignoring the abyss saves us from its return gaze, but the price is to accept it as an unchangeable part of who we are. For good or ill, we have become the monster.

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