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Who Am I? How Crisis Reframes Our Identity

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Who are you?

Some of us define ourselves by our role in relation to others: mother, wife, sister. Others by profession: entrepreneur, consultant, belly dancer. Still others by skills: I'm a neat freak. I'm great with numbers.

It's easy to mistake these labels for our true identities.

It's easy... until a brain injury changes how you define yourself and what has always made you, you.

In 2008, shortly after starting my own business and enduring a month of brutal headaches and neck pain, I collapsed unconscious on my bathroom floor. My husband thankfully came home early that day and dialed 911. Emergency scans revealed a ruptured brain aneurysm in my right frontal lobe.

As I lay in an induced coma, neurosurgeons told my husband, "We've saved her life, but we have no idea of her brain damage or what she'll be like coming out of this. We've done all we can do at this point."

I had survived but I might not awaken with my identity intact.

But awaken I did. I had a subarachnoid hemorrhage, a stroke which is fatal in more than 50 percent of cases. Ten to 15 percent of people never even make it to the hospital. Four out of seven survivors will experience life-long disabilities.

After six weeks in the hospital, several procedures and weeks and months of rehab, I eventually got my strength, stamina and life back.

But brain damage causes unseen cognitive impairments. Your frontal lobe controls many "executive functions," such as organization, information processing and memory. Many of the things I needed to do my work. Many of the things that made me, "me." Therapists taught me strategies to adapt to these new deficits and work around them.

Adaptation is great, but it doesn't come without pain, tears or resistance. We all need to evolve and grow. Just sometimes, crisis forces you to change faster than you'd like.

So here I was, struggling to get back to the old me and failing. And all because of how I chose to identify myself.

"But I'm a master multitasker!" Not quite. Brain injury can cause overwhelm -- a broken filter -- if too much comes at you at once so I was forced to focus on one thing at a time.

"But I'm spontaneous and flexible!" True, but brain injury makes it hard to automatically switch gears like before. A planned schedule became my new best friend to avoid anxiety.

"But I'm a go-getter!" Yes, but brain injury often leads to depression and loss of initiation. I was flabbergasted as to why this Type A Energizer Bunny couldn't get up off the couch for weeks at first and "get going."

Physically, I could see my identity had changed. My long curly red hair, my trademark, was chopped off and when I saw my reflection for the first time, I wept. Who the hell was that woman? Who was I if I wasn't the "feisty curly redhead" anymore?

Silly how we put so much into our surface identity.

A brain injury can turn gentle people into aggressors. It can turn eloquent people into those who can't speak. It can turn graceful people into social outcasts who can't control what they are saying or doing in public. All of these are known effects that survivors can experience.

So, if your personality or skills can change with a jolt to your brain -- then what makes us who we are? It must be something deeper.

In my struggle to adapt to a new me, three valuable keys helped me bounce back and reclaim my identity:

Practice patience. You will not go from zero to 60 just because you really want to. Healing and evolution take time. Patience is not about stagnation. As a redhead and an Italian, the word "patience" is not really in my vocabulary. I learned that progress happens in small delicious steps. If you achieve small victories each day, you're moving in the right direction to a new you. It's the upward trajectory, however slight, that matters.

Embrace acceptance. You can keep fighting all you want, but it's much more efficient to accept the obstacles in front of you and come up with a new plan. I kept trying to get back to my old baseline. I could do certain things easily before, and damn it, I was going to do them that way again. I was my own worst enemy until a therapist said, "It's not about what you used to be able to do. It's about what you can do now." Focus on your strengths, not your deficits. Acceptance does not mean compromise. You might have to take a different route but who cares if you ultimately get to the destination?

Find the humor. People may say, "That's inappropriate." Whatever. My family turned to gallows humor to cope in the darkest times. My husband and I still joke about my head exploding. Humor helps lighten the load, ease the stress, lower your blood pressure and most importantly, create space so you can think productively and problem solve. Recovery and personal growth don't need to be so damn serious! Let's lighten up. Let's get excited about the evolution. Find the humor in your journey. Find the humor in yourself.

Some of my old labels fell away. But the things that really matter to who I am had not changed and actually helped me get through: my fight, moxie, determination, humor. Those are all fundamentally what make me, me. And those are much more core to my story, aren't they?

Maya Angelou once said, "People may forget what you say, but they will never forget how you made them feel." I live by that. The skills, the roles... those are fleeting. But how you approach life and treat others? That remains.

I'd much rather define myself as "someone who loves storytelling, who sees God in a redwood grove, who believes dogs have beautiful souls, who is quick with a laugh or a hug, who has forgiven more times than I've been hurt." Whether I can manage a complex project or remember names well has nothing to do with it.

How can you use your everyday challenges to redefine yourself in a deeper way before a crisis hits? Save yourself the trouble of a brain aneurysm! The surface circumstances will always change. It's your core that guides who you are. Find that. Hold fast to that. Make that your legacy.

For more by Maria Ross, click here.

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