Our past often shapes who we are, but we do not have to let it decide who we are or who we want to be. For Michele, it took years of difficulties before she decided to do something about it: Identity suicide. Michele was able to reclaim the identity that she once had and become the woman she knew she was meant to be.
At the age of 13 I survived an enormous trauma that left me feeling changed, as if I was an entirely different person. Once a happy girl, I now saw myself as a vulnerable, weak, frightened survivor. In order to cope with this identity shift, I put in place several patterns that negatively impacted my life.
By 2005 my unhealthy patterns of post-traumatic stress had brought me to the brink of destruction. Nightmares, insomnia, traumatic memories and depression forced me to function through a fog of emotional distress. Over 20 years of anorexia, anxiety and fear reduced my body to a slew of health problems. Finally, circumstances forced me to take a good look at my stress patterns. When I did, I discovered that the root of my problems lay in the fact that since my illness I very deeply hated who I was: a woman driven by fear. In order to resolve this inner conflict I decided to commit identity suicide.
The idea was to dismantle who I’d become piece by piece, eliminating all of the qualities I hated about myself, thus getting rid of patterns I didn’t want. Then, I would rebuild myself with traits and characteristics I admired. For the first time in over two decades I felt no fear. Instead, I felt excitement, control and anticipation.
My identity-reset quest began with a focused examination of who I was and what I liked and didn’t like about myself. For example, I hated that I was always looking at life in terms of what bad thing was about to happen. The beginning of my journey began, then, with a long hard look at why I was always so fearful. I worked hard to develop a conscious mindfulness of my thoughts, ideas, attitudes and perceptions. In addition to this, I studied the base of my fears. As an adult it was time to assess what was true, what was false, and what were outdated perceptions. By changing things at such a core level, I began to change who I was, too. With new beliefs, came a new strength that altered my behavior.
Once I became proficient at changing the things I didn’t like, I began a process of developing qualities I wanted to possess. Foremost in this, I wanted to be a woman deeply connected to a source of joy. I knew that when I danced I felt transcendent and free. I decided to dance — a lot. I signed up for dance classes every day of the week. A fun thing happened: The more I danced, the more I felt joy, the more I felt connected to my true authentic self, the more I released the patterns that coping with trauma had instilled. I began to like myself more and more.
It took three years to eradicate the things I didn’t like about who I’d become, salvage the things I did, and install aspects of the new identity I desired. Today, I know myself deeply, am connected permanently and love myself unconditionally. Most importantly, I’ve learned how fluid identity can be. Despite circumstance, in every moment we have the option to choose who we are. It’s up to us to choose wisely.
See how Michele answers our Identity Five Questions:
1. What have you accepted within yourself and/or within your life? Is there anything you are working on accepting?
In the past I had to accept that in response to experience you can lose a significant portion of your identity. Today, I’m working on accepting that there are only 24 hours in a day — I have a lot to do to fully (re)claim who I am and enjoy who that is!
2. What do you appreciate about yourself or your life?
I appreciate my enormous connection to the part of myself that feels incredible joy. For so long I thought that part of my identity had been permanently lost. What I appreciate about my life now is how often I specifically make time to deepen and develop that joyful connection in more than one way.
3. What have you achieved, or what are you working to achieve personally, physically, or mentally?
I have achieved something that very often I didn’t think was possible: I have rebuilt my identity. I have deliberately chosen and crafted who I am with meaning and purpose. This means that physically and emotionally I am no longer tied to the past. It also means that mentally I am, in every present moment, creating myself and my life in ways that access and evolve my creativity, passion and desire to help others.
4. What is your not-so-perfect way? We are all unique with quirks and imperfections, so why not flaunt them and embrace them!
A large part of my identity is driven by my passion for helping others not suffer the way I did. My not-so-perfect way of doing this is being all-consumed by it! My biggest goal now is committing to balance in my life so that I feel solid in my identity as an advocate for improved mental health while also scheduling time for my own personal relaxation and recreation.
5. How would you complete this sentence, “I Love My…” This has to be about you, physically or mentally.
I love my ability to feel joy. To me, joy represents all that’s best about us: our ability to feel, experience, create, collaborate and connect. I love, too, my newfound ability to share that feeling of joy with friends, family, colleagues and other survivors. There’s hope in joy and hope, to me, is the beginning of all change.
Michele Rosenthal is the author of Before the World Intruded: Conquering the Past and Creating the Future, A Memoir. A speaker, award-winning blogger and Certified Professional Coach, she is also the host of Your Life After Trauma on Seaview Radio. To connect with Michele visit, www.yourlifeaftertrauma.com.