The surgeon’s work completed, my arm and what it was capable of doing was gone forever. All of a sudden, I found myself in no-man’s land. I didn’t know who I was. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be.
Dave Dravecky – The Worth of a Man
Battling cancer is hard enough, but for many survivors, and I am one, cancer leaves us with an even tougher battle to fight. That battle has to do with our identity. When the storm of cancer sweeps into our lives. the landscape can change dramatically. Everything familiar may be wiped away or changed beyond recognition. So some of us come out of cancer as very different people. We may have lost the relationships, skills, and resources that have been an essential part of who we are and have given us a sense of joy and purpose in living.
When I lost my arm, I lost my career, my position, and my sense of identity. All I had ever done was play baseball. Who was I if I was not a pro baseball player? It was a long, painful, and difficult journey to identify the real Dave Dravecky.
For me, that journey did not begin right away. Part of the reason is because I didn’t grieve the loss of my arm. It would have been the natural, healthy thing to do. Instead, I had a cavalier attitude about it. Before surgery I jokingly waved the arm in the air, pretending that it was saying goodbye. Even after the amputation, the reality of what I was missing didn’t sink in. I was afraid to face how I really felt.
Nonetheless, I was a changed person. The questions of who I was, why I was here, and what I was supposed to do could not be held at bay. I was surprised to discover that so much of my identity was wrapped up in that arm and what it had been capable of doing. It had brought me joy. It had brought me money. It had brought me status, nice homes, and nice cars. On the outside, I continued to adjust to my new “normal” life. But inside it was a different story. Until I came face to face with the personal losses that came with the physical loss of my arm, I was awash in a storm of denial, depression, and confusion.
So in this Who Am I Now? series, we are going to share the experiences of people who have, in one way or another, faced a loss of identity. Not all of these people are cancer survivors. Individuals are caregivers who deal with long-term illness or disability (as well as people who go through a change of location, social status, or family circumstances) may experience similar life-changing losses. No matter how our loss of identity occurs, we can’t just “go on” with life as if everything is fine. If I have learned anything through my struggles, it is that ignoring the loss is a recipe for disaster. The recipe for going on with life successfully begins when we honestly recognize and grieve our losses. Only then are we ready to redefine and rebuild our identity.