Who am I? It’s a bit of a loaded question, isn’t it. Maybe it’s easier to ask who I’m not? I’m not a pensioner, I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a smoker, I’m not 19 years old. These answers aren’t too challenging to elicit. Pursuing the same line of thought, I am a female, an Australian citizen, a brunette, 168 cm tall (weight shall remain undisclosed, naturally), a resident of the northern suburbs…I am a lot. But what I am and what I am not don’t really answer the initial question, WHO am I? WHO are YOU?
I shudder at those quiz questions, you know, the ones in lifestyle magazines that ask you to pick out one word that describes you from a selection of four, or provides hypothetical options for actions one would take in a given situation. They’re usually titled as some all encompassing personality analysis, “What’s your friendship style?”, “What is your spirit animal?” or “Which friend are you in your posse?”
The questions tend to be highly generic and the options are limited at best, for example;
1. How would your friends describe you?
A. Party animal Patricia, always up for a night out in town,
B. Sleepy Sally who would rather stay in bed and watch the latest Netflix series,
C. Fit Fran who wants to run a marathon, head to yoga and swim 40 laps – all before breakfast, or
D. Chilled Chelsea who is up for whatever all your other pals want to do?
Yep, I hate these quizzes, these redundant questions. What if I don’t relate to any of the available options? What if sometimes I utterly relate to Sally, yet on other days, I’m crazy Fran? Why do I have to be just one of the options and really, how accurately will my selection identify my persona? Maybe some of us tend to generally sway towards one classification than to another. Personally, if I absolutely had to pick, I’d say I’m Fran, despite the fact that my swimming skills are on par with a sinking rocks and the last time I did yoga was a good year ago. Nonetheless, the final personality assessment will be that I’m the active one which is largely true, but it is not WHO I am.
What we’re addressing here is the notion of identity, the perceptions we have of ourselves which intertwine with our ideas about what others think of us. The thing is, generally, the two are not congruent with one another. I may think that I am awesome at keeping in contact with my best bud, a weekly catch up call being my definition of this. My peers may consider anything less than five text messages to a best pal per day as utterly unacceptable. I might classify myself as being lazy as I only trained for four hours today instead of five, while my next door neighbour revels in a sense of accomplishment after taking his dog for a walk around the block. Our foundations, the base of our being fundamentally differs which simply means we are unique in our own right, our identities do not overlap.
Now there is nothing wrong with this. Each of us occupies our own social niche, even during times when we feel disconnected, isolated, even dejected. But what is it that deems us as a certain someone? How rapidly can our identity change? Are we the same ‘me’ over a period of, say, ten years? What is the quintessential self that pervades time and allows us to perpetuate the self, the ID, our ego?
So many questions, unfortunately I don’t have the answers. What I do have, however, is an experience, a lengthy one, that ultimately resulted in losing my sense of self. An obsession with exercise, compounded with a fascination of pushing my body to the limits of survival ultimately resulted in an eating disorder that consumed me entirely. I lost that which made me ‘Jo’ and replaced it with a barely functioning shell, void of any personality, aims, goals or life beyond training and not eating. I qualify this experience as one of my hardest yet most empowering.
I became feral, my energies solely directed at surviving each day without collapsing. Walking to the printer became a chore, a challenge. I slammed myself with morning training before work, used my workplace as a platform to ‘test’ how long I could starve for, then another training session in the evening. The aim was to do this on minimal nutrition. It all started with an experiment I conducted to test how food deprivation could increase my athletic output. Reading that sentence now, I recognise the ludicrosity of it, but there was some (albeit minimal) semblance of logic in my approach. My aim was to use the discomfort of the depleted exercise to prepare me for the low points when running an ultra marathon. Unfortunately, self administering such tests on a person with ingrained extremist attitudes is an invitation for disaster. By the time I knew it, I had expanded my experiment to weeks, then months, and sadly years.
I reignite that experience because it highlights an array of factors pertaining to identity. Sure, I may have changed two actions; food consumption and training levels, but the effects where all pervasive. Less food lead to physical hunger and more training perpetuated this. Energy levels slumped and my sense of self worth declined as I could not sustain the energy output I once could. Of course, this was a logical outcome; without fuel a machine can’t perform. Unfortunately, my glucose deprived, strained brain did not appreciate this connection and it began attributing my poor performance with a notion of being a weakling. The ego took a slamming. “How could I not have the power to overcome the strain of deprived training? Was I really that weak? Anyone else could easily sustain this practice, yet here I was struggling.”
All these thoughts flooded my brain and the only way to quash them was to punish myself, keep training harder, eating less with the false belief that eventually, I would adapt to this routine. It’s a sad state of affairs that this promulgated for some five plus years. The deeper I fell into the hole, the further I leapt away from a sense of self. At my worst, I had absolutely no interest in life. Ties with friends were culled, my ability to express emotion stifled, the more my close circle expressed concern, the further I pushed them away. Each day I lay a brick around myself, building a wall that protected me from the ‘interference’ of others. I became neurotic, my sanity dwindled. I perceived the caring actions of my peers, the expressions of concern, recommendations to see doctors, as attempts to compromise my progress. My hair started falling out, my teeth hurt, I broke out in rashes, my body would seize and cramp all night, yet inside my distorted mind, I was getting ‘stronger’.
I won’t delve any further, the wounds are healed but picking the scabs is not fun. Suffice to say, my self concept was significantly altered, dare I say, killed off? Much has changed since that horrific episode that became my life and I now feel reinvigorated, refreshed and more ‘Jo-like’. That statement suggests that maybe there is some form of innate self, a retained identity. However, I also recognise that I am vastly different from the Jo who entered this self destructive journey. My level of self-criticism has decreased. Before I jump to compare myself to another, I remember to acknowledge my self worth and I purposefully remain mindful of the fact that my life journey is my own. I guess in that sense, my identity has momentously altered. While my choices were once motivated by approval from others, there is now a search for the innate value in every pursuit. I read to indulge in the storyline, I study to understand a previously unknown concept, I run to enjoy the rush of freedom coursing through my body.
My social connections have remained; my family is still my family, my friends, although now maybe further away in our degree of connectedness, still remain in the web of my life. I am still ‘me’, but a changed, maybe even evolved version; Jo 2.0. I’m not sure what it would take for me to no longer be Jo. Would a loss of memory, a total cessation of acknowledging the ‘historic self’ do the trick? Maybe a physical displacement, movement to another part of the world? For now, I’m excited to pursue my current journey, this rebirthing, my resuscitation. Have you ever experienced a questioning of self, an identity crisis? Has your entire self concept, identity, ego, the ‘I’ ever been fundamentally shaken? What lead to it? How did you deal with it? Whilst our stories maybe painful to share, if they can assist another in finding themselves, in overcoming self doubt, then let us share the turmoil. To harbour our troubles once answers are found is to be selfish. Let’s share our answers.