The Loss of Identity and the Quest for a New Self
My life with Parkinson’s disease is so strange that I sometimes feel as if I don’t know my own self anymore.
I have a runny nose that isn’t attributable to allergies or viruses. Rather, it’s a dysregulation effect of the disease. I feel sadness that isn’t depression, but rather is connected to unrelenting Parkinson’s pain. People often see my restlessness and assume it’s anxiety. But it’s actually akathisia, or restless legs. I experience hyperarousal several times a day that is not PTSD. Loud emotions and senses occur all around me.
It’s too easy to misdiagnose these symptoms and label them as mental health issues. Trained in using such diagnostic criteria, I can see the mental health view. That’s when I lose my identity.
Several times a day, my movements are extremely slow, like swimming through thick, muddy water. My motor amplitude is off, such as when I automatically reach for a glass and knock it over. It’s like having a broken autopilot. Why are car rides so exhausting? Airplane travel is worse. The system that is designed to self-correct our posture when moving is dysfunctional.
Car rides aren’t a problem of sitting. I do that at the computer for hours without the same intense pain and fatigue. It’s caused by the autopilot overcorrecting body position over bumps and around curves, and doing so throughout the trip. Until I made sense of this, all I had was, “That’s the Parkinson’s.” But I couldn’t get comfortable with that explanation because the way the literature described the disease didn’t fit me.
How do you explain all of this to a medical provider who has only 15 minutes of time to give you, and whose narrative about the disease is so different?
The struggle for control
In his book, “The Wounded Storyteller,” Arthur W. Frank says that our story is also shaped by our self-control, and sense of self-agency. Suffering from chronic illness steals control, adds the stigma of control loss, such as loss of bladder control, and forces one into a crisis of identity. If I can’t control myself then who am I?
My narrative is about the struggle for more control, even in the face of a progressive brain disease. Part of this search for self-efficiency is the story we tell ourselves about suffering and how those stories resonate with those whose opinions matter.
When my illness narrative isn’t understood, I’m left wondering if I am mentally ill. That’s when I lose my identity.
I know I can’t control my body all the time. The disruption of suffering from aging and illness cannot always be predicted. It’s not easy accepting this as a part of life. Acceptance is part of personal narrative, but my illness narrative doesn’t match the norm.
The ‘sick role’
There is a caveat in illness narrative. With “The Social System,” published in 1951, Talcott Parsons wrote the first major sociological theory of the role of health and illness in social life, and argued that being ill was not just a biological condition, but also a social role with a set of norms and values assigned to the role.
Parsons identifies the “sick role” as having four chief characteristics.
First, the sick person is freed, or exempt, from the responsibility of normal social roles. The more severe the illness, the more one is freed from normal social roles.
Second, people in the sick role are not directly responsible for their plight.
Third, the sick person needs to try to get well. The sick role is regarded as a temporary stage that should not be prolonged.
Finally, the sick person, or patient, must seek competent help and cooperate with medical care to get well.
All things new
Illness within the sick role is connected to “a cure.” Parsons doesn’t address “illness” when there is no cure. The illness story is different when perceptions of the illness include chronic and progressive symptoms. Getting well in the case of my Parkinson’s story is not about a cure, because there is none. I live with the disease. My rehab orientation seeks adaptations to function better. My narrative is different, and this creates a mismatch.
My discovery is not that of reclaiming control of a lost self, but the creation of a new self through a new illness narrative: the narrative of possibility, rooted in science and personal experience. This new self-identity accepts that Dr C. is sharing a different narrative and there will be resistance. That’s part of the quest. The healer and the wounded storyteller are both called to share a message of possibility and the rediscovery of self. I am grateful for the opportunity to do so.
Note: Parkinson’s News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Parkinson’s News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to Parkinson’s disease.