Having recently watched Pedro Almodovar's film, "The Skin I Live In", I got to thinking about how mental illness, in particular, schizophrenia, affects one's personal identity. The film prompted this bout of contemplation as it is, in many ways, about identity (sexual and otherwise).
The main plot revolves around two main characters, a plastic surgeon and a young man. The plastic surgeon witnesses the young man rape his daughter, and she later kills herself. Hell-bent on revenge, but also on recreating the image of his wife, who also died, the surgeon sets about changing the man into a woman who resembles his deceased spouse. What I found interesting in the film is how the young man copes with the new identity forced upon him, taking up yoga as a means of, perhaps, learning to accept his new role, and also of protecting an inner self at risk of being destroyed.
OK, so the film appears to have little to do with mental ill health, but the way it shows a person forced into sloughing off one identity to create another did have certain resonances for me.
The radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing postulated that schizophrenic disorders actually begin with some sort of disturbance in one's sense of self; an undefinable yet evidently present feeling of something lacking. Indeed, in my experience, when the illness first struck me, it was as if it were attacking my very personality. Friends remarked that I had "changed", and I myself had the sense that my identity was under attack. This was not only in a social sense (my then friends seemed to change their view of me with alarming swiftness and my social role became one of being either pitied or derided), but also in an internal way. I recognised that, despite attempts to prove otherwise, I had changed, and that my personality seemed to have all but disappeared amidst the onslaught of this illness. So, I don't think it was only friends and opportunities that I lost when becoming ill, it was also a sense of my own identity, both as it was socially defined and as I defined it myself internally.
The psychologist Rufus May, who himself was diagnosed with schizophrenia, has written about such experiences. I have quoted him before in this blog, and he writes that one often, because of the taboo nature of schizophrenic illness, has to mourn the loss of a previous identity and allow for the creation of new motivations and incentives. Much like the character in Almodovar's film, then, I think that I had a period of being very unhappy about losing my previous role. One could, I suppose, say that it was very much like a period of grieving, grieving not over some significant other, but actually over the loss of one's own sense of self. I did, after all, quite like who I was before illness struck, and resolutely did not like what I was seeming to become.
Happily, though, now I can say that I am once again content with who I am. It has taken a long time, but I feel that my life has somehow resolved itself into a happier, more stable existence. It might be said that the loss of something also provides an opportunity to reassess, to learn and to accommodate new things. It seems to me that this process, as well as being painful, may well open up avenues of possibility, even freedom from one's previous hang-ups and limitations. I suppose some would call it growing up, or maybe just growing. All I know is that identity, to me now, appears infinitely mutable. Indeed, perhaps, far from the restrictions that a belief in nature as opposed to nurture would allow, anyone can be whatever they want to be.


dcrelief said…
Hi David.
What a great time to find this article of yours; going through some things regarding I.D. too.
I appreciate the research and personal experience you've shared. Of course I'm happy I don't know a plastic surgeon!
If you don't mind, I'll return and add a copy of this to my 'comfort' file; hope you don't mind?
David said…
Dear Dixie,
Thank you, and I certainly don't mind if you add my little musings to your "comfort" file.
And I'm happy I don't know any crazy plastic surgeons either!
With Very Best Wishes,
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