Since I was a teenager I have loved L. M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series of books. I collected all of them, underlining favourite quotes, and re-reading them over the years. Recently I have started reading them aloud to my 10 year old daughter.
To give you some idea of how much I have treasured my AOGG collection over the past 30 years, in a will I made before going round the world 20 years ago I made a special stipulation for who was to get my AOGG collection should I not return (I then proceeded to drag my future husband to Prince Edward Island on a pilgrimage to Anne country ;-)).
I tell you all this background so that you get the impact of this next line.
Two weeks ago my Anne of Green Gables collection burnt in a house fire.
It was only a few nights later that this reality occurred to me. And I must admit I cried a few tears of grief over my lost treasures.
I only allowed myself ‘a few’ tears though. Why? Because those books were inside my aunt and uncle’s house. They lost almost everything they’d ever owned in the fire, caused by a blazing bushfire in the Victorian Grampians mountain range.
So my grief at losing the books I’d loaned to my teenage cousin was a mere sample of the grief my aunt, uncle and two cousins are facing right now.
It’s got me thinking what it would be like to lose all my possessions and be forced to continue on without them. I ponder how much of my sense of identity is tied up in physical possessions. And what it would do to me if all those were taken from me?
Once I think I would have crumbled, and I don’t deny I’d still be a mess of emotions initially if it did happen today – as I was when I got news of my family’s loss. I grieved for their loss and for them.
But ultimately I think I’d be okay. And I think that is largely due to the trials and tribulations I have been forced to face due to CFS and electrosensitivity.
How Illness Threatens Our Sense of Identity
The CFS, and especially the electrosensitivity, have forced me to re-evaluate my sense of identity. In the early days of both I felt I had lost my identity completely because I had previously identified myself with roles and activities that I was no longer able to take part in.
The electrosensitivity (see posts below for further info on my experience with these) was the ultimate test of my sense of identity and sense of belonging in the world.
An Alien In My Own House
No longer being able to be anywhere near TVs, computers, fluoro lighting, phones of any sort, or even artificial heating without excruciating pain made me feel like an alien in my own house and world.
Throughout the many challenging years of CFS I had managed to hold onto certain aspects of my identity via watching television, listening to music, talking on the phone to my friends, and socialising with friends in their homes and mine when my health was up to it.
I also loved my writing, psychology studies (at PhD level when electrosensitivity kicked in), as well as my videography and photography.
When I became pregnant in late 2002 and the electrosensitive, migraine-like headaches and ear pain began, I felt like I’d gone to bed one day in one world and woken up the next in a totally alien one.
Ultimately I was still the same person. At my core I had not changed. (But I was a lot less in touch with my core back them than I am now :-)). And suddenly finding I no longer fit into my ever-growing technological environment made me question everything – what did it mean? How could I fix it? If I couldn’t fix it, where did I belong anymore? And eventually … was it really worth going on?
No Reference Points
For my aunt, uncle and cousins at the moment, their physical home and belongings have been ripped from them overnight, leaving them with little to ground them in their history and their lives as they knew them. For me, back in 2002, my dysfunctional body had left me feeling homeless – albeit within my own home and society.
Where do you go from there? I had no bearings. I had no other person or people around me who had ever heard of such an extreme illness, let alone experienced it themselves. There were no reference points for me. I was alone in my experience.
In Year 8 I had to read a horrible book called Z for Zachariah about two strangers who were the only two apparent survivors of a nuclear holocaust. At 13 I didn’t enjoy the book at all.
But now I relate to the feeling of being in a world where it seems all the old rules no longer apply. You are the same person but the world around is now totally foreign. In my case, the world was the same but most of it literally caused me pain.
In the experience of CFS/ME and other chronic illnesses our bodies seem to be the foreign entity – or a resident who’s committed treason and deserted us! Inside we’re the same person, but our physical body betrays us and doesn’t allow us to live in a world that was once so homely and comfortable. Our world as we know it – or our place in it – no longer exists.
Rebuilding A New Sense of Identity
What I’ve come to realise is that if I can rebuild a sense of identity and belonging in a world that largely causes me extreme pain, and I can continue to do that daily with a smile on my face and a determination to follow my passions, I could probably come back from the devastation of losing all my possessions too. It wouldn’t be easy, but I’d do it – as my relatives will too.
How “things” identify us
The events of the past weeks have, however, awakened me to my attachment to the “things” in my life and how much currency I give these “things” in providing me a sense of identity.
When I drill down into why I am so attached to photographs, my personal creations (journal entries, poetry, visual art), and other memorabilia/treasured possessions, it mostly comes down to two things – 1. They bring back treasured memories of time spent with loved ones; and 2. They capture my thoughts and state of mind at specific moments in time throughout my life and are a physical history of what goes on in my head (not always pretty!)
As for the first, I have those memories regardless of any photographs or other memorabilia. Only amnesia or senility can take those away. Fire, flood or otherwise truly cannot.
Re the second, I guess it’s just my ego at play, wanting to leave some kind of record of ‘me’ through the years (and perhaps use them as a basis for a best-selling autobiography in future years!! ;-))
Frankly, it’s just me holding onto the past in both instances. As if holding my past tightly to my chest will ensure my sense of identity remains intact. Which of course it will … if I want my sense of identity to be a stagnant phenomenon, rather than one that is open to growth, change and expansion. But that’s NOT what I want.
My life purpose. My true identity.
Every day I aim to grow and expand, striving to be the best human being I can possibly be, while also inspiring others to do the same. That is my life purpose.
I cannot do that if I attach my sense of identity to ‘things’. It doesn’t mean I’ll automatically stop doing it or that the loss of such things would not make me feel sad. What it does mean is that I know that regardless of my health status, my career status or whether or not I have my Anne of Green Gables book collection, who I am at my core remains the same.
Ultimately, I am who I say I am. My identity is only attached to certain people or possessions if I allow it to be. My identity is only attached to an illness or state of health if I allow it to be. And for a long time now I have refused to let an illness identify me or rule my life.
Similarly, I now resolve to not let attachment to possessions, my past, or other people identify me.
I am so much more than any illness, any person, any possession. And so are you!
So how has your illness come to identify you? How have you fought to restore a sense of identity and in what ways has illness led to you creating a new one?
And what would YOU do if you lost all your possessions in a fire? What would be left?
Deep questions, but I’d love to hear your responses via the comments below, the Facebook page or via Twitter.
P.S. For those who still want to jump on the #365Gratefuls #Spoonie train, there’s still more room for passengers. We have a lovely group of spoonies celebrating their gratitude for life on Twitter and Instagram (yep I’ve learned to use Instagram!! Look me up here)
Related Posts: ‘Allergic to Electricity: My Story With Electrosensitivity; Trapped In My Body: CFS, Pregnancy & Electrosensitivity; The Dilemma of Pain – An Unusual Choice; CFS & Pain: A Silent War On An Internal Battlefield;