Chapel Hill: Opinion

The Loss of Self – Carol Phillips

Carol Phillips
Carol Phillips

Who Am I?

At age 45 this question had lost its metaphysical questing and was answered by what I did. How I earned my living. How I spent my time.

Indeed, “What do you do?” is a question asked even before “What is your name?” It is synonymous with “Who are you?” The answer “doctor” solicits a different response than “carpenter”; “bank teller” solicits a different response than “accountant.” More importantly, what we do, and how we relate to the world becomes how we define our self, our being.

When we no longer have an occupation, we have no answer and may feel, at least for a while, lost. This is especially true if the loss of work is not by choice. A layoff. Forced retirement. Or, as in my case, a mild traumatic brain injury.

So ingrained was my identity of someone who worked, who was numerically skilled and technically knowledgeable, that I fought the loss. I agreed to transfer to North Carolina to become a technical writer only when I could no longer deny my inability to continue working as a project manager. I agreed to disability only when it became evident my boss could no longer tolerate the fluctuations in my productivity and attendance. Still, it took two more years before I gave away the business suits I’d worn in California, and a few years after that to accept I would never learn Linux, let alone become proficient in Unix.

The loss of self I felt after my injury, though, ran deeper than just a career, though I do not dismiss such losses. My injury affected aspects of what I felt were my core being: working, listening to music, dancing, reading, driving. I’d been able to keep my bank account balances in my head, accurate to a few dollars even though I might not reconcile the accounts for months. Suddenly, that ability was lost and I did not know it for almost a year. Even then it took a long time – and online access to my bank account – for me to adjust.

These were the attributes that defined me to others and to myself: Numbers spoke to me. Technology fascinated me. Music flowed through me. Words took me to wondrous places. Driving gave me the illusion of freedom. All this and more was lost in significant and difficult to understand ways.

People tell me not to worry – they can’t reconcile their accounts either. Or, that they don’t like to drive. Or I should dance even if I am terrible at it. I know they are trying to sympathize, to comfort, maybe even give me hope. At times, yes, they are trying to tell me to toughen up, quit feeling sorry for myself. Some concussives are angered by such comments; sometimes I am: They diminish my loss, discount who I once was.

Clark Elliott, who was a guest on “The People’s Pharmacy” last November, writes in his book “The Ghost in My Brain,” that this sense of loss of self is a major contributor to suicides among concussives. He says this is because of “an overall feeling that we are no longer part of the human race.” I don’t go that far. While I share his loss, I probably don’t share his idea of what it is to be human. I don’t see the world and my place in it in the same way as he does. And, that is important to the question of “Who am I?”

We all, at some point, decide what makes us human, and whether we are part of the natural world or separate from it; whether people are inherently good; whether we, as a species, a race, an individual have a purpose to be alive; whether life is basically fair. Our answer to these and other fundamental questions form our view of the world. Which in turn gives reason to our political and spiritual beliefs, our careers and mate choices, forms our attitudes, directs our actions.

An accident, an illness, a job loss, will not change us unless the event changes our worldview. Thus, I’ve come to realize I have not changed, not really. Only my actions have – the ways in which I relate to those around me.

This realization brings me some comfort. Yet, the spirit, the drive that formed my previous actions lives on and grieves the loss of those past expressions. Grieves the inability to define myself fully as I would choose to.

For me and others, this is an important facet of being disabled.

Editor’s note: This is part of a yearlong series of essays by people living with disabilities in our communities. You can reach the writers and comment on these essays at Please include your name for publication.

About the writer

Carol Phillips has published short stories in the County Lines, A Literary Journal, and the Red Clay Review, plus haiku in the Haiku Journal. She is working on a memoir about the human costs of a health care system that is unable to properly diagnose intangible injuries, like mild traumatic brain injuries. She lives with her dog Billy Joe and cat Smokey on six wooded acres in western Chatham County where she continues to write short fiction and haiku.