Identity, Humor, Intelligence, & Chronic Illness

By Stacie Prada

Living with a chronic illness that progresses and has no cure has made me hyper aware of how I view myself and others. Faced with potential physical disability and cognitive decline, I realized how much of my identity was based on what I can do, say and accomplish.

I remember my early years navigating acknowledging I had multiple sclerosis. The long list of symptoms and conditions that can result from MS lesions is frightening. Cognitive changes scared me. They can affect a person professionally, compromise analytical and problem-solving skills, and end a career. They often change personal relationships, and I wondered if they would change how I interact with people. 

These scared me, and in that swirling jumble of symptoms, possibilities and impacts, I worried what it might mean for my personality.  I worried it would change how people see me and how I see myself. 

Would I lose my sense of humor and intelligence? Would my personality become something different? Would I like who I become?

Identity

It turns out I am becoming more serious and intentional, and I’m also keeping my quick-thoughts and silliness. MS integrated into my identity.  It didn’t displace it. MS is a big part of my life, but so are all of the other aspects of my being. 

I haven’t lost my sense of humor, but I have become clearer about why things make me laugh. Something I experience or observe may make me chuckle to myself, and whether I share it with the people around me depends on the situation and relationship. Anecdotes and observations on living with a chronic illness can ring true and boost connection with some, and they can make others uncomfortable. Sometimes a modification to how it’s told can make it relatable, and other times it’s worth waiting to share with a person who already understands.

Being silly can sometimes be seen as immature or flippant. Growing older, gaining confidence and learning every day helps me share my thoughts more and worry less about what people will think. If someone interprets me differently than I’d like, I’ve gotten better about not owning their opinion.

I’ve watched friends experience physical and cognitive impacts due to illness and aging. Searching for the right word to express their thoughts can take longer, but it’s also because the right word matters to them.

Intelligence is not the ability to retrieve a word or speak quickly. It’s understandable yet misguided to presume communication equals comprehension and intelligence. I’ve learned through the years and many friends that the ability to communicate or retrieve words have no relationship to a person’s intelligence or understanding of things.

When a person takes their time to find the word that accurately captures what they want to convey, I’m often rewarded with a perspective and insight I hadn’t anticipated. It encourages me to honor the person and the conversation by staying quiet, interested and unhurried.

Curiosity and not rushing a conversation are crucial. Not finishing a sentence when they’re searching for the word reaps rewards. I may think I know what they’re going to say, but often they surprise me with more depth, cleverness and humor than I’d anticipated.

If I could talk to the newly diagnosed me from 13 years ago, I would tell her this:
Living with chronic illness affects everything, but MS will integrate into your identity in a way that matches your personality. Your intelligence, humor and identity will evolve, but they will be what you make them. You’ll gain insight into a world that teaches you about others and yourself. The experience will make clear who you are and who you want to be in this life. Through all of it, you’ll still be you.

*Stacie Prada was diagnosed with RRMS in 2008 just shy of 38 years old. Her blog, “Keep Doing What You’re Doing” is a compilation of inspiration, exploration, and practical tips for living with Multiple Sclerosis while living a full, productive, and healthy life with a positive perspective. It includes musings on things that help her adapt, cope and rejoice in this adventure on earth. Please visit her at http://stacieprada.blogspot.com/

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About MSAA

As a national nonprofit organization, the Multiple Sclerosis Association of America is a leading resource for the entire MS community, improving lives today through vital services and support. MSAA provides free programs and services, such as: a toll-free Helpline; award-winning publications including a magazine, The Motivator; website featuring educational videos and research updates; S.E.A.R.C.H.™ program to assist the MS community with learning about different treatment choices; a mobile phone app, My MS Manager™; a resource database, My MS Resource Locator; equipment distribution ranging from grab bars to wheelchairs; cooling accessories for heat-sensitive individuals; educational events and activities; MRI funding and insurance advocacy; and more. For additional information, please visit http://www.mymsaa.org or call (800) 532-7667.

Comments

  • Ben Hofmeister says:

    I’m not at all grateful for my MS, but if I were forced upon pain of death, I suppose I would say that I’m fortunate that my progression was gradual. Disabilities gradually worsening mean that adapting to them can be gradual too. I had to adapt from an annoying limp to a wheelchair over the course of a decade and I feel that this was significantly easier than if it had happened overnight. Maybe, in the same way, shifting my sense of identity was easier for me (and family/friends) because it happened over time.
    I think both pride and dignity have ties to one’s identity and shifting your identity without a clutch can damage them all.

    Ben
    18Disabled.com

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