Life After Diagnosis: How Illness Changed My Identity
Annie Brewster | 07.12.16
In 1986, when I graduated from high school, I was voted “most likely to climb Mount Everest.” I thought I would do it, if not actually, then at least symbolically.
I pictured my life unfolding as a linear ascension to some theoretical summit, with the journey fueled by my vision and will power. Reflecting on this adolescent narrative of identity thirty years later, I see that reality is actually much messier. It turns out, there is no summit and no obvious endpoint—and the journey is certainly not linear.
Life is full of plot twists.
The Diagnosis That Challenges My Identity
At age 32, in the midst of training to become a doctor, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. This led to a protracted and jarring identity meltdown. As I wrote in my book, “The Healing Power of Storytelling,” so much of what I believed about myself was suddenly called into question.
Here’s who I thought I was, in broad strokes:
- I was an athlete. Always good at sports, I was strong, coordinated and unafraid of physical challenges. It was a given that my body always worked for me.
- I was going places. Full speed ahead. I excelled in school—Stanford University, Harvard Medical School and now a medical residency in internal medicine at one of the Harvard hospitals. I had a good brain.
- As long as I tried hard, I could get what I wanted.
- This was my self-story, with my infallibility the organizing theme throughout the narrative.
Then, my body stopped cooperating. My legs felt weird and disconnected. Both feet were numb and tingly, and over the course of a few weeks this sensation climbed relentlessly upwards toward my belly button. I ignored these symptoms for as long as I could, but eventually ended up in a neurologist’s office. An MRI showed an abnormal spot on my spinal cord—a demyelinating lesion consistent with possible Multiple Sclerosis.
My doctor, a prominent neurologist in the Harvard system with his name on almost every research paper in the field, was convinced of the diagnosis. Firmly and definitively he told me: I had a lifelong, incurable, degenerative neurologic disorder and should start taking medication immediately. (As a medical student, I knew enough to know that these medicines were incompletely understood and potentially toxic.)
He lacked bedside manner, to say the least, and I hated him in that moment for his certainty and for his arrogance. You’re wrong, I thought, and I bolted. Even though I was training to be a doctor myself, I didn’t see another neurologist for five years.
Facing My New Identity
Sociologist Michael Bury has described illness as a “biographical disruption,” one that ultimately dismantles and, by necessity, reconfigures our sense of self. Since my diagnosis—yes, the neurologist was ultimately right—I have become fascinated, as both a patient and a practicing physician, by how identity shifts in the face of illness. This shift is profound.
Being told I have a degenerative condition that might well leave me disabled forced me to question and eventually revise my story.
I lived in denial for a while, refusing to admit—even to myself—that I have a disease. Then, I moved on to shame, telling no one about my diagnosis except my family and closest friends, embarrassed by my brokenness.
I was angry with my body for failing me, and I kept this “sick” part of me cordoned off, afraid that if I admitted out loud that I have Multiple Sclerosis it would swallow me up. People would treat me differently, as less than whole. People would pity me. People would forget the rest of me. Maybe I would forget the rest of me.
Integrating an illness into your identity is a process, and one that takes time, self-love and patience. Most fundamentally, it is a process of meaning-making. Doctors often forget this and throw diagnoses at people like newspapers at the front door, expecting us to take them immediately inside. It doesn’t work this way.
When I was first diagnosed, I was lonely and I found myself craving stories. I wanted to hear from others who had been given a diagnosis like mine and had carried on. Questions I wondered about:
- What had their lives been like?
- Had they been able to move forward in positive and productive ways despite their disease?
- Had they been able to incorporate illness into their lives without having it define them?
- Was it possible to find strength through illness, despite the obvious hardships?
I wanted hope—not necessarily of cure, but of taking charge of my own life.
A Library of Possibilities
In 2010, motivated by this yearning, I decided to start collecting stories of illness and healing, for other patients with other diagnoses. Maybe, I thought, I could use my own experience to give others what I had wanted most: a sense of possibility. My goal was to create a library of stories so that patients like me, struggling with a new diagnosis, could see a way forward.
I found that not only are the collected stories useful for other patients, but the process of sharing one’s story is itself immensely therapeutic. Stories, it turns out, benefit both the teller and the listener.
In the words of medical sociologist Arthur Frank:
“People tell stories not just to work out their own changing identities, but also to guide others who will follow them. They seek not to provide a map that can guide others—each must create his own—but rather to witness the experience of reconstructing one’s own map.”
Ultimately, this led to my creation of Health Story Collaborative, a nonprofit organization committed to empowering patients and their loved ones to find meaning, through storytelling, when confronted with illness.
Connecting Through Story
My personal experience, as both a patient and a doctor, has convinced me of the value of storytelling. Stories make us human. Stories connect us. Stories help us make meaning in our lives. Working with Dr. Jonathan Adler, a narrative psychologist and now Health Story Collaborative’s Chief Scientific Officer, has helped me ground this experiential and intuitive understanding in science.
Research in the field of narrative psychology has shown that while the historical facts of our lives certainly matter, the meaning we make out of our experiences, captured in the stories we tell about them, is more important, and is strongly connected to mental health.
An article published in The Atlantic in August of 2015 summarizes this nicely:
“In the realm of narrative psychology, a person’s life story is not a Wikipedia biography of the facts and events of a life, but rather the way a person integrates those facts and events internally—picks them apart and weaves them back together to make meaning. This narrative becomes a form of identity, in which the things someone chooses to include in the story, and the way she tells it, can both reflect and shape who she is.”
Who we become—or rather, who we are constantly becoming—depends on a continuous interplay between our biology, our social context, the things that happen to us along they way, and, perhaps most importantly, how we make sense of what happens. We are constantly constructing and reconstructing the stories of our lives.
Ultimately, we are drivers in this process.
As Adler put it in The Atlantic article, “You’re both the narrator and the main character of your story. That can sometimes be a revelation—‘Oh, I’m not just living out this story, I am actually in charge of this story.’”
Why Storytelling Matters
Moreover, how we tell these stories matters. According to the research, the more our stories contain certain narrative themes—agency, redemption, communion and coherence, to be specific—the better our mental health.
One prospective study by Adler demonstrated that increases in agency clearly preceded improvements in mental health, suggesting a causative role. In his words, storytelling is “a subjective endeavor with objective ramifications.”
So, while life is indeed full of events we do not expect and cannot control, we play an active role in determining how the story unfolds. Realizing this has been a gift, but also a responsibility, both to myself and to others.
As a doctor, I learned to appreciate the impact of my words and actions. Through firsthand experience, I know delivering a diagnosis changes lives, changes our identities.
As doctors, we are with patients and their families at vulnerable moments, and who we are in these moments has repercussions. We are a part of the story, and potentially major characters. While it is our job to share our knowledge and to offer our opinions, we need to do so respectfully and without our egos getting in the way. Our job is to guide and to support, not to direct; to help patients determine what is “right” for them, not to be “right” ourselves. Our job is to be with patients in times of need, and ideally, to help them to find meaning and tell their stories in psychologically productive ways.
As a patient, I learned that I have more power than I originally thought.
While obviously none of us chooses illness, we can choose how we handle the challenge. While we can’t entirely control how our illness progresses, we can control how we make sense of the situation, our identity, and this matters. I say this not to minimize, but to empower.
Of course some days it will be impossible to feel a sense of agency, to feel connected to others or to find the redemptive threads in our story, and these inevitable lows are to be expected. In fact, they are an important part of our identity that adds depth and integrity. Meaning-making happens when we step back and reflect, not necessarily while we are in the midst of a challenging day. It isn’t always easy, but in the end perhaps it is all we have.
Read Dr. Brewster’s blog post on learning to let people in and ask for help after a diagnosis.
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Thank you so much for this heartfelt story. I was a recent graduate with a bright future ahead and a promising relationship, when I developed pretty bad ezcema that now covers on 70% of my body. And I went throught an identity crisis just like you.
I can’t enjoy things I once enjoyed before: swimming, exercises, wearing shorts and t-shirts, and feeling beautiful. The illness has broken me and reshaped who I am forever. I’ve become much strogner and more religious. I’ve found peace in meditation and created a new narrative for my story. I tries to view my illness as a gift. Today is just one of the down times…
Thank you Dr. I was diagnosed on the 22/01/19 with cancer in the breast. I don’t even know what kind or what stage yet. Your story gives me a place to begin making thought adjustments and the thought of being able to write out my journey. I think will help tremendously.
I admire your strength and courage of heart. I always have.
Thank you so much for this. It is a shining example of what it describes. That the power of sharing our stories– and how we share them– is a huge part of dealing with the challenges of life. I also have MS and our stories are very similar– the arrogant diagnosing doctor, the denial, shame, anger, and ever-increasing acceptance– only I was becoming an architect instead of a doctor. It’s so rare that anyone talks about this huge aspect of living with a diagnosis– the identity shift that must take place. It’s taken me 36 years and counting! I look forward to sharing this with my community to increase understanding and closeness.
Dr. Annie, thank you so much for your story. I am awaiting the report of a recent test and know it could be life altering and I needed to hear how other people have faced these challenges yet continue to live their lives and remain a whole-person. I know life takes hope but how does that look in actual life experience. Your story says alot about that.
Very powerful and timely article – I’m entering my LAST chemo cycle in 2 weeks! I’ve been fortunate in that my support team is ready, willing and able to listen when I need to “share the wealth” but this article illustrates how necessary that sharing is to both the patient and the listener.
Thank you for making it okay to share and continue the conversation so others feel comfortable asking and learning!
Thank you for sharing that. I found comfort in it. I think I am ready to take control of my story.
Wow, this is everything I could not put into words after going back into treatment with metastatic colon cancer.
I understand oh so well. I, too, was in the medical field wanting nothing more than to help my fellow man. Now, I hope my life will go in in a very different way to help myself and all whose lives I can help. Every one of us lives in this world. We should all care about one another.
Thank you so much for sharing. It is helping to understand.
Very helpful and forthright article. I especially find the elements of storytelling especially interesting and valuable. I will listen to someone’s story with more understanding and glean more insight from how I frame my own story.
Wonderful article. I have CFS/ME. It’s been 4 years of
‘Trying to live a somewhat normal life’. Winters & viruses slam me down more for months afterwards. By June I’m able to walk for about an hour & half total for the day & rest the rest. I keep a positive attitude because eho knows, a cure could be around the corner. I was an athletic happy person. Still mostly happy but unable to be in social events, camp trips, shop or go to hall games. I’m now painting glasses and working in Photoshop. I’m Photographer of the Year in Sonoma County. I need good days for shooting portraits and maybe a visit to see my horse.
No riding yet. Live & hugs to everyone who has to deal with health lufe changed, especially to charlie who I dearly love ????. I hope you recover to lead a happy life full of love and joy. You deserve it. ????????
This is a wonderful article. Some of the vocabulary, however, makes its content more understandable to the college-educated, highly verbal reader than to the average adult. I fear that some may have begun reading it and given up when they ran into unfamiliar vocabulary–a problem that could be easily tweaked. (I say this as one with her M.A. in Reading.) Still, I appreciated the article.
All of us at CaringBridge are keeping you in our thoughts on your recent diagnosis. I’m so glad this post by Dr. Brewster was helpful to you during this difficult time.
Thank you Dr. Brewster. I was just diagnosed yesterday with cancer in the breast. I don’t even know what kind or what stage yet. It really helped me to read your perspective on redefining my life narrative. It gives me a place to begin making thought adjustments. And the thought of being able to write out my journey, whether anyone else ever sees it, I think will help me tremendously.
I identified with your narrative about your multiple sclerosis – not because I have it but because I have osteoarthritis that I first suspected in my mid 30’s when my knees ached when sitting tailor fashion. In my late 40s, I transitioned over to bending one knee, the good one, and leaving the achier one to go straight until my late 50s when sitting on the floor just got too unless my legs were straight out. It was a slo-o-o-o-ow process that involved increasing aches and pains but it did not stop me from climbing the occasional small mountain, walking trails, geocaching and most importantly caring for a large and expanding family as our seven children began lives of thier own. As my sisters needed knee and hip replacements, I vowed that would never happen to me — until 2012 when my left hip was very painful and I finally admitted that my osteoarthritis was interfering with my life. My left hip was replaced on September 30, 2013 by an amazing surgeon, a pioneer in the Albany, NY are of the anterior approach to hip replacement. Three weeks later, I was out again geocaching in the woods. Physical therapy has helped to maintain strength but the osteo continued its progress and my left hip will be replaced the Monday after Thanksgiving of 2016. The right knee may – well probably – will need replacement and the left ankle will at least need cleaning out although that is a procedure that at the bottom of the list because of the lengthy time required to be off the foot. It probably isn’t annoying enough yet to make itself a priority. So, I am now committing myself to losing the 40 pounds of excess weight needed to put less stress on my joints. This is the morning that commitment has been finally been made because while osteoarthritis cannot be cured, changes in my lifestyle, namely reducing foods with lower levels of nutrition and higher caloric content in favor of those that support weight loss will allow me to continue to enjoy an active life with our family and avoid being one of those older people using a walker or a wheel chair. Although I just passed my 73rd birthday, there are still many wooded trails to be explored and ocean waves to be jumped. Sitting on the beach or at the trailhead and watching the kids come back from a hike is not my style. Thank you for sharing your story.
Doctor Brewster, I want to thank you and Caring Bridge for this inspirational story you have shared. I had tears in my eyes because of the special woman you are. My brother Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick who has been confronting his cancer for 8 months. He is always attacked with weakness and fatigue. He had a Bone Marrow Transplant which was successful and has given my brother a new beginning in life and I thank G-d everyday. My brother is my life. Thank you so much for posting your story and I wish you well. Joyce Moss
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I strongly believe that sharing our life eg. Illnesses,relationships,raising children/grand children, career,Religious experiences etc.We are helping one another in a good way. Knowledge is passed on from one person to another. There may be a different treatment from the one you are trying. Please be honest when you share and not say what is not so, because lies won’t help anyone.
Thank you for sharing your story. You are a gifted writer. Please consider writing your story in book form – our world would be blessed by your courage and resolve.
Thank you. My beautiful daughter, a Wife, the Mother of our 6 month old Zoe and a dedicated businesswoman has just been diagnosed with Stage 2/3 BREAT cancer, she faces chemo starting next week, radiation, surgery and reconstruction. We are all still at at the stunned, disbelieving level. I feel your story will be an inspiration to her and all of us who love her. Thank you