“You can’t change my height! There must something wrong with your measuring equipment!” I protested loudly. “I am 5 foot six, not 5 foot 5!” I was not even sure why they were measuring me because I could have told the nurse my height. It was written on my driver’s license and on my passport. When I left New Zealand, I went through an intensive physical as my farewell act before I left to live in Paris. How could they change my height? This was relatively early in my diagnosis with multiple myeloma. To add insult to injury, I “lost” another half-inch in height recently when they measured me yet again. It appears that this cancer effects the bones with height loss being relatively frequent. Saying that I was 5 foot six inches would just roll off my tongue and it was part of who I was, it was part of my identity since I could remember. This new height is just not who I am. (I should add here that I have been in touch with others with this cancer and they have lost up to four inches in height so I should count myself fortunate.) And yet….
More changes were coming to who I have always thought I was. I underwent a stem cell transplant in July of last year and lost all my hair as a result. While that was to be expected, I was more worried about what my hair would look like when it grew back, ever so slowly. It is not almost back to a normal length but surprise! My hair is not only greyer (which I understand given my age) but my regular straight hair is no more. I am curly beyond belief. I look in the mirror and get a fright when I see the face looking back at me.
Throughout this experience of cancer, I have come to realize that relying on my personal appearance or other supposed “permanent” characteristics for my identity is a dangerous practice. I have come to love the idea that change not only happens but that it is exciting to be able to revisit one’s identity.
As I have sat in the infusion room at the hospital over the past year, I have had many hours to think about what my future would be like; would I even have a future and most of all, have I become the person I want to be before dying? The answer to that last question is a definite “no” but I am certainly clearer about what I want for myself.
I may be in my sixties, but I am still learning. This realization gives me hope and keeps me alive as I contemplate knowing more, growing more.
Let me give you an example. I am my father’s daughter. I can stand in a grocery line and talk to everyone in that line. I can play with completely strange children as their parents give me strange looks trying to figure what this stranger was doing. And so, I always believed that I was an extrovert.
Except that with this cancer, I have gone into quiet mode often. I have needed time to internally process everything that was happening to me. Alan would ask quietly if I was OK, if I was upset at anything but the truth was that I was going into my “cave” to process before I came out to speak to him or others about my feelings. It was in reflecting on this that I came to understand that in this sense, I am an introvert. Taking time away from others to work things out is a classic introvert behavior. I still talk easily to everyone and anyone but that does not speak to how I deal with crises or important subjects.
Is it possible to go your whole life believing you are a particular person and then that transforms into someone else? I believe that while we have a foundational identity, fundamental parts of us that remain constant, there is also a whole element that we get to create and develop, usually in response to the people and environment around us.
One more example to illustrate. Recently, I underwent a course where we examined our key values that drive us. From a whole list of values, we were to identify our top ten. That was hard enough but then we were asked to narrow this further to just three vital values that spoke to who we were and what we believed. Now, the value of honesty was in my top ten and I have often spoken about my father who I consider was the most honest man that I have ever known, bar none. His integrity was a paramount value to him that he spoke about often. He was the kind of man who put money into an expired parking meter as we were leaving because to him, “I have used this space and I need to pay for it.”
As I chose the top three values, honesty did not make the cut. It was a shock to me because I always believed that this was close to the top. It is certainly important to me, but I chose the values of wisdom, personal fulfillment and then the highest value was spirituality. It was an “aha” moment for me because I came to understand that I had been carrying around my Dad’s value as if it were my own. We can be taught certain values and principles but, in the end, we need to claim the beliefs that drive us as our own.
I look forward to the next thirty years or so and beyond as I keep creating and developing my identity. What a blessing it is that as humans, as individuals, we are given the opportunity to constantly reinvent ourselves, no matter our age. It is one of the reasons why I am so excited about the mission of Discover Identity. I want to be part of a movement that helps people to find, create and recreate their identity. As women, I invite you to come and join us as we explore our identities together.
We'd like to thank Marianne Downing for contributing this article to Discover Identity