When I was young, “I know you are but what am I?” was the response you gave when someone called you a name that you didn’t like. While the name calling has ended, the labelling hasn’t. For example, one time I applied for a corporate communications job with someone I knew. Since the person only knew me for my technical writing skills she told me that she couldn’t see me doing the job. I didn’t even get an interview. It didn’t matter that I had won awards for newsletters I had published or that I had judged newsletters, magazines, and annual reports at an international level. I had a label and it happened to be the wrong label for this particular job.
Since others may label you, possibly incorrectly, it’s important you know the answer to the question, “What am I?”
If someone asked you to describe yourself what would you say? This may seem like a simple question, but there’s not an easy answer.
Would you say that you are 5 foot 6, 125 Ibs., blonde and blue-eyed? Well, not if the person could see me, especially since I don’t look anything like what I just described.
Perhaps you would say, “I’m married with two children who love me, especially when I forget to say no and get them whatever they want.” Even if this information was true, I wouldn’t use this description in a job interview. Instead, I might say, “I’m a business analyst who has worked in the insurance industry for over 10 years. I have excellent analytical skills and the documents that I produce are clear, concise, and easy to understand.” While the first description might help me connect with other mothers in the neighbourhood, it wouldn’t help me to get me my dream job.
If it was a new doctor who asked the question, none of the previous answers would be helpful, except possibly the height and weight information, but we already know that information was a lie. This is when I would say, “I was diagnosed as having absence seizures when I was a child and had my first grand mal seizure while I was delivering my first son. In 2011, I was diagnosed with Stage 2B breast cancer and had surgery, chemo and radiation to treat it. I’m still taking medication to help keep the cancer from recurring. So far everything is going well. The fear of recurrence is still there.”
If you were making a new friend, you might give a mixture of the previous descriptions along with a list of activities you like to do, the foods you like, and the places where you’d like to travel.
While you are the same person, your description of yourself changes based on the situation you’re in and the role of the person asking the question.
Sometimes it’s not clear what defines you when a major life event takes place. When I got married I became Mike’s wife. When I had children, I was referred to as Kyle’s mom or Tyler’s mom. When I had cancer, I became a patient, identified only with the name on my health card (Deborah Kerr) and my date of birth. These two pieces of information were my form of ID at every visit to a hospital, a test facility, a doctor’s office, and a treatment centre. It felt impersonal, and it was irritating because I don’t like being called Deborah.
I felt like the real me was getting lost and the medical aspect of the cancer experience was all that people could see. The lack of hair, the loss of a breast, the scars, and the radiation tattoos were all reminders (like I could forget) that I had breast cancer, so I had to try extra hard to let my inner Debbie (lots of humour) shine through to remind both myself and the people around me that I am a person first and a breast cancer patient second. My appearance is a part of me, but it does not define me.
The Skeleton in the Closet
I have never hidden my epilepsy, but I don’t mention it in a job interview. Unfortunately, epilepsy is one of those things that is often discussed in hushed tones or not discussed at all. It’s almost like operating on a need to know basis. If someone doesn’t need to know you have epilepsy, you may not want to share the information. There is a lot of ignorance about what it means to have epilepsy and in this case, ignorance is not bliss. It can lead to comments that stick with you many years after they are said, like the one I heard describing a seizure as “flopping around like a fish”. In Grade 8 I was taken off the volleyball court because I had an absence seizure (staring into space without any awareness) that resulted in a ball dropping right in front of me. My teacher thought if I sat on the bench for a bit I would somehow get better so that he could put me back in the game again. If only epilepsy worked that way it would be so much easier.
Those situations aside, in most cases, I have been lucky. My friends accepted me and my epilepsy. I was a friend who happened to have epilepsy, not someone with epilepsy who happened to be a friend.
My husband (my boyfriend at the time) never had anything negative to say when I told him I had epilepsy. Little did both of us realize just what a big impact my epilepsy would have on our lives. I had a grand mal seizure while delivering our first son. I could not stay home alone with the baby, so I had to live with my parents for the first six months of our baby’s life and my husband only got to see us on weekends. Since I don’t drive, my husband has to drive me everywhere, and comes to get me, at the drop of a hat, if he gets a phone call saying I’m having a “bad head day” at work and I have to come home. He has always been there for me. Even with all this, I am his wife, not his epileptic wife. Epilepsy is a part of me, but it does not define me.
What/Who am I?
When others label us based on our medical conditions, we have to remind them and ourselves that we are a person first. We have to recognize a label when we see it and then decide if it is something that we choose to accept.
Personally, I like to label myself based on my character traits, skills, and how I choose to use them. For example, my sense of humour defines me. I use my sense of humour to help myself and others to deal with the troubles at hand. Sometimes we get so immersed in our lives that we forget to take the time to find the humour in things. Sometimes we feel like a victim when everything seems to be happening to us, when our focus needs to change to finding the power within us to make a difference in our own life and the lives of others. As Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Don’t forget to take the time to figure out what makes you feel good about yourself. Choose the labels that you will accept to define you.
Over 30-years of writing experience, over five years as a cancer survivor, and a lifetime purveyor of wit and laughter.