Dear Mental Illness, You Stole My Identity

Dear Mental Illness, You Stole My Identity

Brian Collier

Dealing with mental illness can make you feel like you’ve lost a lot of things, but one thing that is most difficult to lose through it all is who you are.

How does mental illness seem to steal even your identity? And how can you get it back?

I have devoted my career to understanding identity and perhaps in a way you might not think. I think many ills in society can be traced back to identity issues and it has become a filter through which I see almost everything.

I am a brander. I brand things. Things like companies, organizations, foundations, and even people. I talk to people about who they are. More often than not, they have a difficult time articulating this crucial aspect of their brand. Powerful brands are built upon clear identities. And clear identities begin with knowing who you are. There are a few very simple questions to ask when discovering who you are, but they can require a depth of thought at times. Let’s start with the first.

But first, a quote. The philosopher, Hannah Arendt, sheds some insightful light on identity when she said,

“Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to achieve the amount of identity and continuity which together produces a ‘person’ about whom a story can be told.”


What does she mean by this? Being bound to anything sounds less than ideal, especially at a time when you already feel trapped, bound, or confined to your mind. But she is referring to being bound by a promise, or commitment. And a promise is just a committed relationship between two things.

Basically…identity is never formed alone, but always as a committed relationship to something or someone we serve.

So here is the question to ask yourself: What have I committed or should I commit myself to? To do this, get out your phone and open a new note, or get a pen and paper. Jot down every type of relationship you have.

Here’s an example of who I am by how I relate to the people around me.

My commitments, or my relationships

I can now easily visualize to who and to what I have committed myself. I am a husband, a relationship with my spouse. I am a father, a relationship with children. I am a Christian, a relationship with Christ.

This can begin to help you understand why your identity was stolen in the first place. Mental illness didn’t steal your identity, it stole your relationships. It did this through persistent isolating thoughts like, “No one understands what I’m going through.” “What will people think of me?” “How could anyone love me?” “I’m not lovable, I’m better off on my own.” These isolating thoughts leave you feeling like your life has become less and less meaningful.

My purpose in asking this question is always to help people find their purpose, to find that meaning they can believe in, and be driven by when the going gets tough.

In David Brooks's book The Second Mountain, he reports that in 2007, Gallup performed a survey asking people from around the world if they felt they were living meaningful lives. The results were not what you might expect. He wrote,

“It turns out that Liberia was the country where most people felt a sense of meaning and purpose, while the Netherlands was the place where the lowest percentage of people did… This is not because life was necessarily sweeter in Liberia. On the contrary. But Liberians possessed what Paul Froese calls ‘existential urgency.’ They were willing to risk their lives for one another. And these fierce commitments gave their lives a sense of meaning…In a crisis, we are compelled to hold closely to one another in ways that actually meet our deepest needs.”


Commitments, relationships, your purpose. I see these 3 things quite synonymously. They all mean “meaning”. They all mean a start to building identity.

I will be the first to tell you that understanding and building identity is more complex than just jotting down your relationships, but to requote Hannah, “Without being bound to the fulfillment of promises, we would never be able to achieve the amount of identity and continuity which together produces a ‘person’ about whom a story can be told.”

And I believe everyone has a story to be told.