It’s finally snowing in London! Albeit fartily and pessimistically! Although the church looks suitably romantic, sneakily hiding the sludge being kicked to its rotting gravestones. Neither of us slept last night, so we went out at 5am to leave footprints, me in my pyjamas.
Robert promptly fell asleep when we got back.
An open question to you all! Who the hell are you?
In the past few months, have you may have guessed, I’ve been thinking about identity. It had been on my mind for a while. Personality and identity are different; personality is who we are as a whole, composed of traits, identity is what we define ourselves as or by. Personality I find easy- I’m me, there you go! I’m pretty much the same where you find me. Identity, that’s more complicated.
I have always found it odd that people have an impression of me from this blog. I’m not sure what that impression is (comments and emails give me a hint), but naturally, over time, regular readers would have formed an idea of who I am. Likewise, with the radio play-adapted from a blog, which was written selectively, in certain moods, at certain times. (The play being quite a bit more interesting!) There are periods in which I grandstand somewhat, forcing humour. Or times when I am too dramatic, in ranting moods.
I too have formed impressions of you, readers and other bloggers! Purely from what’s disclosed on the internet, in a fairly specialist area- and that, I think, is a little bit dangerous.
Then there’s Facebook and Twitter, in which everybody- maybe not consciously, but they do- crafts a persona. We present highlights, overly jovial tidbits from our uniform lives, or use it as an outlet for every annoyance, every niggle.
And, with me and many of you- mental illness. All the defining syndromes, in which people are prone to make gross generalisations, are generalisations. “The Mentally Ill”. “HIV Positive People”. “Drug Addicts”. “Alcoholics”. And so on. They are defined socially- in many cases, negatively- in a way that other illnesses aren’t so much. Some illnesses- like cancer- might have a hand in defining you through how you live with it. But in the eyes of the world at large, the definitions they, often wrongly, apply to you are largely positive ones. Very few alcoholics are brave, to those who use the term. (My dad was brave).
People get filtered through this and that, until you find you don’t recognise the person other people perceive you to be. In my case, in some circumstances, I feel that way.
I think that because there is so much stigma attached to certain conditions, when you get diagnosed with one of them, and are in your right mind enough to absorb it, you can become defiant and it becomes a part of your identity. It’s understandable and something I’ve done. I realised the dangers- obviously- of identifying myself too much with a particular diagnosis when that one was dismissed in quite a tactless way, and I still haven’t resolved it. That aside, though, when something affects your mood, your behaviour, who you are at times- it’s difficult to separate it from your core self. Especially if you are in the system, when a lot of who you are is pathologised. Happiness, sadness, anger, fear, guilt. What is me, what is it? Is there a difference?
I have felt defined by mental illness sometimes- certainly, given that I write this blog, it is part of me. There are parts that have shaped me; I don’t think I would be the same person at all if I hadn’t experienced some of those things. Speaking earlier to Robert talking about our ways of interacting with people (he is getting much better at it), I mentioned that in terms of mentalism, some of it had been very isolating, because I acted in ways that sometimes people didn’t understand, that I found profoundly embarrassing afterwards. So now, I’m quite guarded about making new friends when I feel alright, and when I’m down, I’m a recluse anyway. That’s been something big, which I didn’t really understand until fairly recently. (I went into it a little on my anti-social anxiety post). In terms of personality, at least, I’m not particularly depressive- if we were talking a “spectrum” of mood, my normal mood is quite cheerful. But I am lonely, often, without the balls to actually ring up people and say, “Include me, please!” because I have let so much slide. So I am annoyed at myself for it. At the same time, it’s helped me with a bit of balls and confidence. I know I can be quite scary when I want to be, and I know I can be dominating, and that’s partly borne out of resilience after years of my brain being a bastard. And living with this stuff has helped me, in some ways, to be a bit of a thrill-seeker, in a way I don’t think I would have been. I tend to do stuff just to do it, however silly it is.
I identified with manic depression a lot, because it seemed to me to finally explain some things I hadn’t understood, and to give me the language with which to explain it to others. I identify less now because I’m not sure it’s accurate, but I do still think in terms of highs and lows, and when I try to talk about it, it’s the only language I can find, it’s what I grasp towards, it’s what I touch. I want to reclaim my own language.
But I also have other aspects of my identity that are bugger all to do with mental illness. When I was younger, my music taste meant a lot to me, whereas it doesn’t now. I’m not sure why I value it less now than I did. I don’t enjoy gigs, particularly, so it might be down to the fact that I often prefer to be alone, and music can feel intrusive. I find it hard to talk about music I love- it feels personal, private, in the same way discusses a lover does. I prefer to read, or to write with something- sometimes music, sometimes the television- on in the background, quietly, politely. I identify a little as, “comedy fan”. I identify as a writer. Whatever a writer is- someone who writes, who likes to write, who does it for a job? There are various political things I identify as- one being as a woman. Which in itself is a political act, to define yourself by your gender. My womanness is central to my identity- as a feminist, as a blogger, as a human being. Being born with a vagina has meant that most of my experiences have been dictated by it ever since.
I identify- quite forcefully at times!- as Irish. That, again, is part defiance. I’m from West Belfast, a very Republican area of Northern Ireland. It’s a little pocket, largely spun from the lore of the ’60s and ’70s, the good fight. The good fight, of course, involving murder. My family were never particularly insular, despite being very Republican. Lots of people from my area had- when I lived there- never met someone from another country, and regarded Protestants as The Enemy. My family- my immediate family- aren’t like that, so they didn’t hassle me for being in love with an Englishman, having two best friends who were dirty Huns or my decision to unceremoniously bugger off to London when I was seventeen.
But I grew up being told, repeatedly, that I was British, when my love was entrenched in Irish mythology, when I studied Irish language, when our accents marked us out as Taigs. Though Northern Ireland doesn’t have its own culture, not much of one, but that’s something for another post. People from the South used to say I was a half-bake, neither British nor Irish, when I regarded myself as more Irish than them because I fought for the right to call myself so.
Since I moved to England, I felt even more Irish than my teenage pouter alleged to be, when people were astonished at the closeness of my family, at the way we dealt with life- in a quite common Irish way, i.e by shouting a lot, drinking a lot and taking the piss, a lot.
And so I identify myself too as part of a family. I am a Molloy. We are fiercely protective of one another- possibly to the point of stupidity- but there it is! Up your arse.
Likewise, I tend to identify as working class, though few would peg me to be, largely due to the grotesque and blind way people view those of “the underclass” or working class as being rather like, “The Drug Addicts”, “The Alcoholics”- a one, a mass- if particularly ignorant, then one and the same. I dress, “eccentrically”, I seem clever, I like to read and I’m not an alcoholic or drug addict- how could I have been raised by an alcoholic early retired man and a woman on benefits on various council estate in West Belfast? That is their fault, not mine. I’m aware of some stereotypically middle class behaviour in myself. I have not the money, nor the background, to be authetically middle class, but I do have three types of pasta and two different types of sugar, which, if most British stand-up comedy is to believed, makes me middle class. I also read the Guardian and Independent now instead of the Andytown News and An Phoblacht, so I am middle class.
Now I can’t go out this afternoon because my social worker appointment has been gipped around and I need to go for more form filling in reasons. Sometimes, I feel I know where I stand all too well!
So, I’m curious- what defines you? Do you feel your mental illness has a hand in your identity? What else does? As life goes on, does your identity change? Do you become a mum, or a patient, or a doctor, or anything and then it becomes you?
Tell me what you think, I have five ears.
EDIT: Someone in the comments said it would be interesting to ask the people who know us. I did that earlier, when I was ruminating over the things I wanted to say here. In terms of mentalism, his position is, “to some extent” but it’s not how he thinks of me, nor the first thing he thinks about me, that other things are more important and more persuavive. There are things about it he almost admires- my ability to do without sleep and to function very happily without it- and he sometimes doesn’t understand why I go through periods of feeling intense, overwhelming guilt until he connects it to the periods of depression. So, in his eyes, at least, it’s an irritating backseat passenger, whispering into my ear, “You’re a cunt”.