Identity Crisis

It was a regular Sunday morning. We woke up, walked the dogs, got dressed for church. I specifically picked out a pair of black heeled mules from Zara — I was feeling a little cute. We grabbed coffee, drove to Park Slope and found parking five cars away from the church entrance. Score.

11:20 am. “We have ten minutes. Let’s just chill in the car for a bit.” My husband takes a sip of his cold brew while I meeked out words that have been stewing for as long as I could remember.

“I feel anxious.”

“About what?”

“I don’t know. A lot of things.”

“Ok, like what?”

I rattled off the laundry list of thorns poking at my side: I watched a friend’s video celebrating a birthday and I felt homesick. I miss going to weddings and birthdays and parties with friends and family. I didn’t get to do my morning meditation so I felt off. This chai latte was really good but was way too sweet. And then it bubbled up. The words that have been swirling around my mind for the past four months…

“I’m not getting anywhere with YANA.”

It’s officially been a little over four months since I started my own Integrative Health Coaching practice. I have a website. I have the license. I have business cards. I even got stickers of my logo to stick on every available surface. I have everything, but clients. Paying clients, that is. I started YANA Well-being with the clearest of intentions — to share with the world the power of healing. The same healing that took me two years (and counting) to get to, all wrapped up in a 3- or 6- month package of individual or group coaching. Easy, right? Except it felt like no one wanted this gift.

The thing is, I had a certain vision for what this path should be like. I graduate from Duke, take a couple of months to set up the business, tap my network for potential clients, work as a practitioner at a few wellness spaces, build a clientele, and eventually do this full time. I envisioned this integrative health guru booking clients up the wazoo and helping people get unstuck, balanced, and in the flow. “Hello, my name is Andrea. I am a Thrive Coach. I use integrative health, mindfulness, and empowered living to help people thrive!” That was the identity I was chasing. The identity I thought I should have.

When I was going through chemo, one of the things my therapist reflected back to me when I was complaining that the side effects are lasting longer than I anticipated or that cold-capping wasn’t working because my hair was falling out — was that there is no perfect cancer patient. There is no perfect cancer patient.

To quote Brene Brown, “I am a recovering perfectionist and an aspiring good-enoughist.” You see, growing up an only child raised by a strict grandmother, I very early on learned the expanse of perfection. Grades, recitals, dance, hair, English. It couldn’t be just ok, it all had to be as close to perfect as possible. This banner of perfection is something I carried through my adult life – jobs, promotions, salary, spouse, house, wardrobe, Instagram feed. It was what kept life predictable, plan-able, comfortable. It became part of me. It was my identity. And so when something like cancer at 33 years old came, it rocked me to my core. I have no family history, I am healthy, I am not supposed to get cancer. Not at this young age at least. And so even with cancer, I tried to be perfect. I very quickly learned that my therapist was right.

So the past couple of years have been about rebuilding. The strange thing about breast cancer is that it strips you of all things with which you identify. My waist-long hair — gone. My signature eyebrows — gone. My breasts — gone. Muscle definition — gone. I was a blank slate. Hairless and vulnerable. My power and confidence that were once tied to the perfect identity I had of myself — gone. Who am I if I am not my hair or my eyebrows or my breasts or my ass? Furthermore, who am I if I am not my marriage or my family or my health or my friends? What is left that is simply and truly me? This is a question I’ve been pondering up until I took that first course at Duke. What is my passion? Health and Wellness. What can I do with this passion? Share it with the world. And by simple deduction, I developed a new identity — health coach. It felt right, it sounded appropriate, and it made for a good after-cancer story. Imagine my bio: “Young breast cancer survivor turns the tables around and becomes a health coach where she shows others how to thrive amidst adversity!” Good, right?

And that was where my mind was. This identity of an amazing health coach helping people become healthy, happy, vibrant. So as I sat in the car, forty-five seconds before mass started, my emotions finally caught up to me and tears inexplicably start falling.

“I don’t know why I’m crying. I’m on menopause, I’m fresh out of hormones yet I feel like I’m on Day 2 of my period!”

That was his cue to drive away, as we clearly were not making mass. We drove to our solace and special place – the park. Many a serious conversation went down at Prospect Park that it might as well be an extension of church. By this point, the tears would not stop falling. It was as if my soul was filled to the brim with emotions and this was the fastest way I could purge it out. I truly did not understand where those tears were coming from and why there was so much of it. Part of me wonders about what they say about mercury retrograde. It stirred shit up like sand in a mason jar full of water. And now that the retrograde is over, the sediment is finally starting to settle. And so perhaps this is me settling all the buried and unaddressed emotions from the past months.

“What do you want out of all of this? A sense of fulfillment? A hobby to keep you busy?

“Purpose.”

“And what do you think your purpose is?”

Out came the only words I could find to articulate how I knew I felt but not sure how to say: “To be a conduit of light.” I’m not even sure I know what conduit means, and yet that statement has been repeated over and over in my head, as if someone planted it there to bloom. In Aruba while swaying under the big pillar, blind-folded in dynamic meditation, I received light. It felt like pure, radiant energy coming from above that I smeared in layers repeatedly on myself. Is this the light for which I am supposed to be a conduit?

One of the questions I’ve been running from is who is my clientele? Who is in the darkness that I can help guide toward the light? The answer has always seemed pretty clear and yet so elusive. Those like me. Those like me who went through the trauma and darkness of cancer that want to get to the other side. There is fear in going to the other side. Fear that my mind might stay on that side after all the work I’ve done to get to this side. There is guilt and a bit of shame for feeling this way, which is probably why I’ve never addressed it. Until now.

“I’m scared. Scared that I may work with people who are in a better or worse predicament than me. I don’t know if I can handle it. What should I do?”

“If you feel your purpose is to be a conduit of light, then why put an aperture on it?”

Tears stream down my face.

“Freedom.”

“What about freedom?”

“What you said, it feels like freedom.”

There, on a warm August day sitting beside my partner playing hooky from church, a huge weight was lifted. All the rules I gave myself on how to be a coach, what that should look like, who I should work with, the business plan…they are all the same manifestation of perfection that was slowly creeping back into my identity.

I had just finished reading the book, “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life” by Dawna Markova. This book, amongst the handful of others I’ve read in the past few months, seemed to find me at the right time and the right place. This one found me while I was browsing a communal library at a wellness center that accepted me as a practitioner. My fingers scanned the rows of spines and stopped at this one. Here is the poem written on the back of the book:

I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
more accessible;
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance,
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom,
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.

This book was chapter after chapter, gem after wise gem of what it meant to live purposefully and passionately. And that it doesn’t have to be the work we do per se, it just has to be in the way we live. How we choose to live.

Two quotes resonate while sitting in the car having this conversation:

To explore what it would mean to live fully, sensually alive and passionately on purpose, I have to drop my preconceived ideas of who and what I am.

and

Living on purpose requires us to find what we love fiercely, give it all we’ve got and then pass it on, as if it were a torch, to those who follow.

All this worrying about the business of YANA Well-Being was getting in the way of the purpose of YANA Well-Being. It was born out of the light, and so in the light it should stay.

“What makes you feel purposeful?”

Deep silence ensued as soft rays of sunshine beamed through the leaves of the trees surrounding us onto my outstretched arm. I twisted my fingers gently, as if wrapping this light into my hands for safe-keeping.

What makes me feel purposeful? I think about the deep conversations I’ve had with family and friends. When people say they’ve read my blog and found some solace from my words, or that my posts have brought motivation to be healthier and more peaceful. When I introduced my best friend to matcha and meditation so that it is now part of her self-care routine. To my breastie saying my zen ways have rubbed off on her and her truly believing she is not alone. To the clients I have coached, giving me feedback that they’ve already felt subtle shifts in the way they think and are more mindful of their habits. These. These are the things that give me life, that flames my passion, that gives me purpose. Perhaps I had it wrong all along. My identity was not just one or two specific things — it’s not just project manager, wife, vegan, cancer survivor, health coach. Rather, it is a combination of all things AND more. Perhaps it’s not just about having X paying clients by Y time. Maybe it’s like being water in a cup – it is formless and molds to the shape of its current predicament. To be flexible. To evolve. So much so that I am not tied to any specific identity, that way I can rebuild and maneuver life without fear or anxiety or pain of breaking the mold.

So after a couple more hours of heart talk and deep catharsis, we wrapped up our car chat and headed home. I made baingan bharta for dinner, our favorite Indian dish that I’ve been meaning to cook for a while now. I roasted the eggplant, smashed them, then sautéed onion, tomato, garlic, ginger together. Tossed everything in along with some green peas, cilantro and lots of love. The result was an amazing dish – balanced with the smokiness of the eggplant, depth of the spices, and zing of the aromatics. And perhaps this is what being alive is. There need not be a crisis of identity for we are all made of different components and as long as there is patience and passion and love, it’ll all come out good at the end. Balanced. Vibrant. Soulful. Exactly what we need. ❤

Be alert and present and see that your identity is not from your past story; who you truly are is the alert presence that is inseparable from the present moment. You are this, which has no name and no form.

– Eckhart Tolle

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3 thoughts on “Identity Crisis

  1. I’ve wondered, with some people, if they’re trying to find themselves by looking outside. I remember a neighbor sharing that his son was trying to find himself. I said, all he has to do is look in the mirror. You’re already there. I think the media and many other sources create overthink. The difficulties of life cause many to look for something, but it’s always right where we are. Sometimes, I believe, what we’re looking for finds us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It’s an insightful question, and I think it is true. I know for me, it was for a long time. Our culture likes to label things – first place, feminist, democrat, resilient, strong, mother, successful – and it’s really easy to attach an “identity” to one or many of these labels. You so concisely put it “You’re already there”, but ironic how it sometimes take a life’s journey to reach a place that was there all along. Hoping more of us take time to look inward as a compass for sense of self.

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      1. I remember, as a kid and teen, some of my teachers and friends having put me in a box. I didn’t like it. I didn’t completely know myself, but I certainly didn’t want others to tell me who I am. I liked complements, but even then, I was realistic. I only know what I know. Later, I tried my hand at many things and continue to learn daily.

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