We all put labels on ourselves. Mother, architect, artist, nurse, accountant, teacher. Gay, straight, black, white, Christian, Muslim. Smart, sexy, socially awkward, efficient, funny, stressed. Sometimes we combine these labels, as in "stressed Christian accountant" or "efficient gay mother".
Labels can be very effective in introducing ourselves to new people or situations: "Hi, I'm your new neighbor. I'm a dentist who likes to garden." Resumes, social media, dating sites, the first day of school. These are all good places to use labels. They are markers that others can use to remember us and our role in their lives.
But what happens when those labels change? When your label changes from "wife" to "divorcee", from "doctor" to "retiree", from "general manager" to "CEO"? Does that change who you are. Does your value go up or down? Do you look different, feel different?
If we are lucky, we recognise that the labels we use to identify ourselves are not permanent. They are sticky notes we put on our foreheads for the comfort of others. But some of us begin to feel that the label is who we are. We can feel trapped by our labels, or wear them like armour. We can find comfort in our label, a sense of self. The label becomes our identity.
This is what happened to me. I was happy with my label. I was "fibre artist", with sub-labels like "spinner" and "knitter" and "teacher". I was mother, wife, cook, gardener, writer. I was busy, smart, efficient.
Then I was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Disease. I became "chronically ill". I became a "patient". I became slow and sore and fatigued.
These new labels plastered themselves over the old ones, obscuring them, and pretty soon I had no idea what I was. Who I was.
I did feel different. My value did change, at least in my own mind it did. I felt that everything I was has been torn away from me by this disease. I tried hard to continue tonwear the old labels. I plastered a smile on my face and charged forward. The doctors and therapists all told me to maintain as much of my normal life as possible. So I did.
Or, rather, I tried to.
It became very apparent that my old labels and my new diagnosis were not going to be compatible. Even so, I fought to hold on to those labels for over a year. I tried to keep up the pace of travel and work and family involvement and art and socializing and gardening. It got harder and harder to keep up the pace, with side-effects from medications and deformities happening in over-stressed and inflamed joints. Fatigue became overwhelming and flares stopped me dead in my tracks for weeks at a time.
Pretty soon, the labels by which I had lived my life became overwhelming. They became impossible dreams, or sticky tar pits fromwhich I could not escape. I felt like an imposter, wearing labels that were no longer mine.
I gave up.
I let go of those labels. I crawled into a little hole and stayed warm while the cold and dark of winter beat on my joints and my soul. I floundered without my labels, not sure who I was and what to do.
Then, slowly, I realized that letting go of those labels did not mean I had let go of who I was. No, sir. Instead, letting go of those labels set me free to be whoever I wanted to be. I can still be a fibre artist without being a knitter. I can still be a mother without being efficient. I can still be a gardener, even if my hips won't let me bend over some days. I am adapting old skills to new tools and techniques, as an artist and a person.
I also began to see that my new labels did not limit my existence. Being a patient does not mean I am at the mercy of doctors and instiutions, it means I am part of a team working to make my life better. Being chronically ill does not mean I am an invalid, it simply means that I have to live one day at a time and embrace each day for what it is. In some ways, the new labels have given me much more power and confidence than the old ones ever did.
I am not my labels. I simply am.