Chronic Illness and the Loss of Identity


Do you ever miss the person you used to be prior to your diagnosis? Sometimes, when I look in the mirror, I see someone else and someone I am not sure I recognize. Some days, that makes me sad because I am still mourning the person I once was and on other days, I am content with who I have become. 


Chronic illness has an overwhelming effect on a person’s life and the grief that comes as a response to the loss of identity is not unusual. Our lives become interrupted by the disease and we start to see psychological changes that are a normal part of dealing with chronic illness. Because illness is so unpredictable, it forces us to constantly change our plans and we never know how things will work out. We start to lose control of things we once controlled like our personal identities and our independence and with that comes a loss of self-esteem. 

Many have to change jobs, or leave them all together, and we lose financial security and status. We all have to change our lifestyles in order to adapt to our conditions. Some have to let go of hopes and dreams and we are constantly wondering what we will lose next. Certain roles in our lives start to change such as family, work, and social life and that involves adjustment – not just for us but for others in our lives. Our friends, family members and partners all start to feel uneasy about the unwanted adjustments to their own lives because our illnesses affect their lives as well. What is worse is that if these issues do not work themselves out, we are set for more losses that further add to our loss of self-esteem and loss of identity. 

Before we got sick

The biggest transition is the loss of identity that we had before we got sick. Here are we changing everything about the way we once defined about ourselves and the way we used to interact with the rest of the world. It can be really difficult to deal with because feeling mentally well means feeling good about yourself. To add injury to insult, we start to lose once supportive relationships that aren’t standing the test of chronic illness. 

If you suffer from a condition that is invisible to the rest of the world, you will not always receive validation or support from those you expected to receive it from and you start to feel angry and frustrated. This is a time when you need love, compassion, sympathy and support and what you are met with is skepticism, disbelief and anger. You start to feel angry, hopeless, helpless, resentful, damaged and depressed. Coping is overwhelming and your new identity isn’t as helpful as your old one.


Is there is a simple answer to prevail? No, but prevailing takes time and patience and learning to accept your new identity and how to work with it. Find support with those who understand your struggles. Communicate your feelings to your loved ones about your loss of identity and focus on not feeling angry and resentful simply because they don’t understand. Educate yourself about your condition and take care of yourself the way you would a small child with love, kindness, pampering and nurturing. It is okay to grieve but don’t focus too much on your loss of self-worth and instead, focus on who you can become. Make peace with your illness and listen to your body. Last, let go of society’s expectations and the expectations of others you are better without in your life.

 The person I used to be is a memory

Every day, I find old memories of the person I once was. Sometimes, I miss her but I have moved on. I am not saying that I don’t grieve for that person because loss of identity isn’t something we easily get over. I have, however, learned to accept the person that I am now and the person that I am now has limitations and a breaking point. The person I used to be didn’t have limitations or a breaking point but having unlimited pity parties aren’t going to bring the old me back.

Adapting and Adjusting  

Living with chronic illness isn’t easy but it is a lifelong process that requires us to keep adopting and adjusting every day and with every situation. Illness is unpredictable, intrusive, and interfering and you have to learn to expect the unexpected at any given moment. You will learn that there will be painful periods and periods of improvement and you have to be able to move back and forth from acceptance to adjustment. It is a slow process but we have to learn to let go of the past and accept the people we have become and with time and patience, we eventually master acceptance and adjustment.


One thought on “Chronic Illness and the Loss of Identity

  1. Oh so very true. You couldn’t have said it better, or clearer. Now, I wish the selfish idiots that call themselves “family” and “friends” would get it and knock off the platitudes….

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