For pretty much all of my post-undergraduate life, my identity has always been tied inextricably to my job. “Hi, I’m Buzzy, and I’m a librarian”, or something along those lines. This connection has been enhanced due to the circumstances of my current job, as it’s high profile in both my community and the Oregon library profession. I’m “the library director” or “the librarian that reopened that library”. It’s flattering, certainly, as people seem to respect me for my work, but it has also become fundamental to my public identity.
Identifying closely with your profession certainly isn’t something specific to dysthymia. While I don’t really have statistics on it (how would you even collect them?), the topic is at least common enough to be covered by the Wall Street Journal, among others. Work is such a significant part of what we do as adults that it’s only natural that we become associated with it, both to ourselves and others. I’d imagine this is especially common among childless adults like myself.
Despite its frequency among many people, I feel that my dysthymia has contributed to the overzealous job identity in my own life. Let me say that I’d likely be susceptible to this phenomenon even without a mental illness. But said illness likely contributes in a couple of ways. First, I invest a lot of energy into my work face. I realize that kind of sounds like begging the question, but consider this. I’m inclined to identify strongly with my job anyway. Because of that, I’m also inclined to invest a disproportionate amount of my limited energy resources into that job, and therefore into the mask I wear to do it. It creates a circular relationship: as I invest more of my meager reserves into my job, I become yet more identified with that job, which makes me want to invest even more energy into it. And on and on and on. A vicious cycle, surely.
The second way dysthymia relates, though, is the way it infests your personality and makes you think you are it and vice versa. As Robert M. Miller says,
“Dysthymia is also an interesting disorder from the neurobiological perspective because it is often difficult to discern from other personality disorders, such as a depressed or gloomy personality.” (source)
For most of my life, I assumed that being an emotional eunuch was just who I was. The times that I saw some passion, some emotion, some small degree of color, were not terribly promising. In other words, the potential “real me” scared the shit out of me: an angry, bitter, guilt-ridden, dejected shell of a man. Why would I ever want to learn more about that part of my identity? And in some twisted confirmation bias, I conveniently ignored the few good, emotion-rich years I’d had when I was married, where the actual real me probably flourished. So I thought my dysthymia was my personality, was my personal identity, was … me. Rather than exploring that reject who I seemed to be, I retreated into my job, where I seemed to have some success and respect; that guy I was while at work actually seemed like a decent human being.
So who I was increasingly became identified with what I did. I was a librarian first and foremost. That was how I related to the outside world. That’s still a large part of how I relate to the outside world. It probably always will be a significant part of how I relate to the world. But in contrast to needing to converge my many masks, I need to diverge my identities. I am not my job. I also am not my dysthymia. I’m not precisely sure who I am, but my treatment is helping me investigate. And discovering who that person is will help me not only be better at my job, as I’ll be more balanced, but more importantly it will help me be, well, me, and the best me I can be at that. So slowly I’m divesting some identity currently tied up in my job and am reclaiming it in the personal sphere. I’ll let you know how things go.