Identity and Learning How to Be [Sick?]

Our identities are not fixed entities.  They are living, changing, faceted.  I visualize my identity as a word cloud (if you’re not sure what that is see some examples here).  More prominent aspects of my identity would be in large bold print, with smaller facets in smaller print.  What’s more or less prominent changes throughout my life.  Some facets of my identity are lost or discarded altogether, while new ones come into play.

I remember when “mother” became the most prominent aspect of my identity.  And alongside “mother” would have been slightly smaller but still prominent labels such as “breastfeeding” and “attachment parenting.”  Then one day “autism” became one of the biggest words on my imaginary identity cloud.  For the first two years after R was diagnosed, autism ruled so much of my thoughts and daily life.  Our schedule revolved around therapies and doctors and specialists.  Our son barely slept which meant we barely slept.  A lot of things in our household changed to accommodate his needs.  But gradually we got into a good rhythm.  We learned how to make our house child-proofed and autism-friendly.  Our son got the right blend of meds to sleep a six hour block.  He started school and had a great routine.  Suddenly, I had 3 kids in school all day.  Stay-at-home-mom no longer seemed like a prominent component of my identity.  While autism will always be a big part of our lives, it no longer seemed like this huge deal.  It was just our family’s normal, just life, and so it faded smaller in my identity cloud.

Around this time I remember feeling like I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to be anymore.  I’d had given so much to motherhood, but now my kids were growing, needing less from me in some ways.  It wasn’t a huge identity crisis, just this realization that I now had 6 hours per day to myself with no mouths to feed, diapers to change, or shoes to tie.  I decided to go back to school.  I realized with mounting excitement that I could actually build a career, one that I enjoy and find fulfilling.  I saw myself in the future doing part time work in a field I was passionate about.

So I went back to school full time to study social work with an emphasis on disability.  Suddenly, “student” was back on my identity cloud.  It wasn’t easy fitting school into my life as the parent who acted as primary caregiver while my husband worked and had a lengthy daily commute.  We ordered a lot of takeout, and the housework, normally more my responsibility, took a bit of a dive.  But I loved it, and I finished all my classes the first semester with a 4.0.  I was in the middle of my 2nd semester, with an acceptance letter and scholarship offer for the social work program I had wanted, when my ALS symptoms became troubling enough to start sending me from doctor to doctor.  A few weeks later I was diagnosed with ALS.  It changed everything.

When someone tells you that you may only have a few years left to live you have to decide how you want to spend the time you have left.  As much as I was enjoying school I realized this was no longer the path for me.  For one, things like typing had grown much more difficult due to my weak hands.  Then there were other logistics to consider- I would be driving 30-40 minutes to campus, but how much longer would I be able to drive independently?  As an aside, at this present time I no longer drive unless it’s an emergency and a very short distance.  I also thought about how working wouldn’t be possible.  And even if it was- even if school and work were all possible with the right supports- was that how I wanted to spend the time I have?  I decided I would rather focus on spending time with my family and doing things I enjoy while I can still do them.  So I withdrew from school and we booked a trip to Yellowstone.

It’s been almost a year since I was diagnosed.  My ALS progression has been quite slow so far, compared to a lot of PALS (people with ALS).  But I’ve still lost a lot compared to the old me.  I cannot write legibly, zip up my jacket, button my jeans.  I can’t clip my nails, pluck my eyebrows, or shave my legs.  I have trouble brushing my teeth without stabbing myself with the toothbrush because my fine motor control sucks.  As previously noted I don’t drive anymore.  My speech is altered, my gait is altered.  I have a feeding tube, and while I can still eat by mouth I have given up some foods and must be vigilant to avoid choking.  I drool at times while eating, and food gets stuck in the sides of my mouth because my tongue is too weak to push it back to where I could chew/swallow it.  I was never a tidy eater, but I in the past I considered my slightly messy, overly-exuberant eating style to be endearing, cute even (that’s what I told myself anyway).  But there is no longer anything endearing about how I eat.  It’s just embarrassing now.

In the wake of these changes I find myself sinking into a depression that centers around a feeling of identity crisis.  I’m not a student anymore.  And while I’m obviously still a mother and spouse, so much of what I considered to make up those parts of my identity have been stripped away.  I can no longer drive my children to activities, appointments, or simply to the park.  There is not a lot of housework or food preparation I can do.  And most painful of all, I can no longer even be home alone with my Autistic child because that would jeopardize his safety.  I am not strong enough to pick him up or lead him by the hand.  If he climbs somewhere unsafe I couldn’t get him down.  If he managed to bolt out the door I couldn’t catch him to bring him safely home.  I’m not strong enough to change his diapers because at 5 years old, his legs and bottom are too heavy for me to lift during a diaper change.  Nor am I strong enough to hold him in place when he resists being changed.  He needs an able-bodied adult with him at all times and that’s not me anymore.

My husband works from home as much as he can, and when he can’t, he still makes it home early enough to be there when R gets home at 4pm.  He waits to leave for work until R’s bus has picked him up (at 8:55am), even though this will result in a worse commute for him and less time at work to do work.  He makes all our meals, does most of the housework, does all the shopping.  He takes the kids to their appointments and activities.  Everything that I once did, now he does.  Sometimes I can see and hear how stressed he is.  Afternoons when R is struggling behaviorally, and the older two are bickering, and there’s dinner to be prepared and messes to be dealt with.  And I feel so guilty.  I feel so lazy and useless.  I sometimes try to help and end up making it worse.  For example trying to load the dishwasher but dropping the first glass I pick up because it’s too heavy.  It shatters all over the floor and now my husband has to sweep up glass on top of everything else.

I realized the other day that I don’t know who to be or how to be anymore.  How to be a sick person?  Or just how to be this version of me.  The disabled me.  Maybe it’s about that qualifier, disabled.  I used to be a mother, but now I’m a disabled mother.  And that’s something new I have to learn how to be.  A disabled mother, a disabled spouse, a disabled bibliophile, a disabled hiker and nature enthusiast.  I haven’t figured it out yet.  How to glue the pieces of my identity back together, or reshape them into something I can be inside this failing body.

I don’t even know what kind of sick person to be.  A brave one? (I’m terrified.)  A defiant one?  A fighter?  An angry sick person, or a sweet, gracious, compliant sick person?  None of them feel authentic.  I see other PALS blog pictures of themselves skiing mount such and such with adaptive equipment captioning something like “ALS can’t stop me!”  And here I am feeling like I’ve already let ALS stop me from…everything.  I’m too tired to be inspiring.  I’m not brave.  I just do what I am forced to do because of my situation and that is not the same thing as being brave.

I wish I had a deeply wise ending for this post that would pull it all together with some kind of personal epiphany.  I don’t.  It ends here.  Because I haven’t figured any of this out yet.  But I’m trying.


Mohammad, 8 years old

We are sitting at the table eating lunch.  Mohammad and Aliyah have a neighbor friend over, a mixed race boy that, by skin color alone, appears to be black.  Mohammad turns to his friend and brightly asks “Guess what color I am!”  The boy looks perplexed and Mohammad clarifies “My skin, guess what color skin I am!”  The boy’s brow furrows, “White?  Brown?” he asks.  “How did you know?!” Mohammad gushes excitedly.  Listening to them, I wonder which guess Mohammad has identified with, since the boy guessed both white and brown.  I say, “Mohammad, which one is it?  White or Brown?”  He says “I’m Brown!” then happily resumes eating his Mac n Cheese.  The conversation moves to legos and plans for constructing a fort in the bedroom.  I continue to contemplate the discussion of color and identity.

Mohammad (8) and Aliyah (7)

My kids are half white, half-Iranian.  Though my Iranian-American husband has relatively fair skin and eyes, he does not identify as White.  His father has the darker skin and eyes that most people associate with mid-easterners.  His oldest brother does as well.  Our son, Mohammad, is tanner than his father, but has enormous blue eyes.  I wear the hijab (headscarf), which has negated my white skin and ethnicity, throwing me over that invisible and ever-shifting line between White and Not White.

Years ago I had a roommate who also wore the headscarf.  She and I looked nothing alike.  She was tall to my short.  She was brown skinned to my white.  She had dark eyes and I have light eyes.  Our white neighbor did not figure out that we were two different people until months later when he saw us together.  He was shocked.  The headscarf erases my whiteness, my American-ness, and my individuality in the eyes of most White Americans.  I become a nameless Other.

Before we had children I used to always tease my husband for checking off “Other” on the race selection part of forms.  “You’re white-skinned with blue eyes,” I’d tell him in exasperation.  We would debate the matter and always end up in a stalemate.  In part, my argument stemmed from my own resentment that he, the Iranian-American, could “pass” in society, while I, the White/European American could not, because of my headscarf.  It seemed unfair that he could claim “Other,” on his forms while seamlessly passing as White in public, meanwhile I had to put White/Caucasian on my forms while being treated as Brown and Other in public.

When we attend mosque nearly everyone is brown skinned.  Once, when Mohammad was 5, he remarked “Only brown people are Muslim.”  I asked him if I was brown, if he and his sister were brown.  “Well we’re Muslim so we’re Brown,” he said.



I wonder what Mohammad’s friend, as a person of color himself, thought of Mohammad’s assertion that he is brown.  I wonder too, on behalf of my son, if a boy named Mohammad ever can claim the privileges of whiteness.  Like my hijab, his name alone seems to rescind that sociologic group membership.


Unlike her brother, my daughter does not seem to identify with any particular color or ethnicity.  How much does that have to do with her name?  Her name, Aliyah, more or less passes.  It is not overtly Muslim, foreign, or ethnic, though it is more common among Black and Brown girls.  She looks white.  And she doesn’t wear a headscarf.  Is that why she feels no burden to identify with a particular race or ethnicity?  Has Mohammad’s name isolated him from whiteness from the time he was little, driving him to deliberately claim a separate identity in a way his sister has never needed to?

I don’t have the answers but I am curious to watch my children as they develop identity, to see where they end up.  And maybe now I understand a bit better why my husband can’t bring himself to tick off “White” on forms.