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Kayleigh, aged 24, is a chronically ill artist from Scotland. She’s been ill with multiple illnesses all her life, but severely since she was 19. Through digital art, she’s working on a massive chronic illness reality art series where she documents her struggles.
Finding my Identity through Health and Art
By Kayleigh Skye Esplin
Prior to being ill, my life was busy. I had a great social life with lots of friends. I went to college to study my obsession, which was and still is, art. I owned a beautiful horse who I loved and would ride almost daily. I had a boyfriend (who is still by my side) and a part-time job that I enjoyed. To me, these things made up who I was. This was my identity.
The first two years when my illnesses were most severe and all consuming, these things were stolen from me practically overnight. Not only these, but my quirky personality was obsolete. I didn’t enjoy “banter”, I didn’t really smile. I was not excited or enthusiastic about anything... in fact, I don’t remember even having thoughts that weren’t related to how awful I was feeling. I simply had no energy to let my personality shine and a number of symptoms had piled up on top of me to the point I couldn’t be seen anymore. Life was just about surviving each minute of the day and I was like a zombie. I don’t even remember much of that time. I was like a vessel with no soul.
When I was a little better and could think a bit more, and do a bit more. Everything I did was illness related. My art was about expressing myself, trying to rid my mind of the trauma illness had caused. My writing and blogging were about illnesses too; it was my way of just trying to process it all. My social life consisted of speaking with other sick people online. My research and what I watched was about healing and getting better. My life was completely consumed by illness and healing. I know this sounds really unhealthy, but it was necessary for a little while. When I spoke to people that weren’t living a similar life of illness, I realised how boring I seemed, how I lacked my own personality away from my illness and how little I had to say to people.
I had changed so much- at this point I felt like it was for the worst. I was just this body without much personality or spirit. Without dreams or hopes. Without a plan for the future. Without a life or a daily routine. During this time, I feared what lay ahead of me, not only the uncertainty of not knowing how my health would be but I also worried nobody would like me. I was concerned my full personality would never come back. I worried I wouldn’t ever again get to pick up the hobbies that I felt made me unique and who I am.
This brought a lot of questions for me. Who am I now? What is my purpose? What does my future look like? I felt like these questions couldn’t be answered fully in the place I was in. I couldn’t remember who I was, and I couldn’t imagine even a day without such severe symptoms, so how could I envisage a positive future and who I could be? I felt like it was important to figure it out and to build an identity for myself that wasn’t related to illness.
I started an art project where I aimed to dive into my own subconscious mind. I truly didn’t believe it would be a success, but it was actually a wild experience. I did tarot card readings, ink blot paintings and studied dream analysis. Much to my surprise it all linked up perfectly. My findings were like life lessons from this ‘wise old owl’ that I didn’t quite recognise but could relate to. That ‘wise old owl’ was me, it was my subconscious telling me who I was, what I needed and it was honestly enlightening for me. It was empowering to realise I had all the answers within me!
I continued my journey of self-discovery by meditating and being mindful. I researched personality types, zodiac signs and spirit animals to gain a deeper insight. I learned a lot by answering a multitude of questions about myself that I had found by looking up self-discovery questions on Pinterest. I answered all the questions I could find. I’m looking back in my diary right now and I answered 60! I didn’t just give short answers. I really delved in deep to learn as much as I could about myself.
Here are my 5 top favourite questions:
1) List three things that make you unique
2) How has your personality changed since you were a child?
3) Do you live your life through intuition or a logical basis?
4) What would your ideal ‘you’ be like?
5) What makes you angry and what makes you happy?
The more I started thinking deeper about these things, the more I remembered who I was before. I began to realise I still had all of the qualities that I had previously, and now, I had even more. I started to look forward and gained an insight into who I could be. I realised my journey could provide a lot of positives to my life. It revealed a whole new career path in health that I hadn’t previously considered. I started to realise that hardships create a unique view on the world and can end up even being your superpower. My mind-set seemed to shift quite rapidly and suddenly, I allowed myself to learn and grow.
The more I healed, the more I started to notice my personality shining through. I started becoming a bit bubblier. I vividly remember doing something silly and laughing so hard. Instantly, I thought, “wow I’m back.” It was a sudden realisation, although I had been coming back to myself for a long time without realising. I started to laugh more. To play more. To wind people up and be my cheeky self. I became more generous again, spoiling people on their birthdays and showing support for their wins. I didn’t have the energy for these things before this point; my illness had made me forget who I really am at my core.
After a while I started finding inspiration for my art that wasn’t related to illness. I started to enjoy fashion and accessories again. I became “a bit” obsessed with shopping and felt the urge to put on makeup just to feel pretty and special. I listened to music and podcasts. All these little things were changing over time, and it was fun watching myself come back.
Now, I know myself more than ever. I realised during this period of transformation that our personalities don’t really come from the hobbies we do or the lifestyle we lead... of course that does make up some of our personality and it’s probably what shows the world our character. I never feel more ‘me’ than when I’m galloping a horse through a field or doing a round of jumps and getting that rush of excitement that makes me madly in love with life! However, without being able to do this like I used to, I realise I’m still ‘me’. I’m SO much ‘me’. I’m more ‘me’ than before I fell ill and that’s for a few different reasons:
1) When you have so much time to yourself you have time to learn about yourself.
2) I purposefully delved into ‘self-discovery’ because I hated feeling like I didn’t know who I was and lacked personality and joy.
3) When you’re put into a difficult situation and hit rock bottom, you find yourself. You become stronger, more knowledgeable, you develop stronger opinions and views. You learn how YOU specifically deal with different situations. You learn your own strength!
4) You appreciate who you are more. Once you’ve lost yourself, you will love yourself so much more when you finally start to feel like you again!
I may not yet get to live the life I want to live but I am still ‘me’. I am strong, determined, and resilient. I am an optimist, always grateful and looking on the bright side. I am kind to all, loving to my closest loved ones and loyal until the day I die. I am a total introvert who needs space to unwind and to quiet my mind. I may take a while to come out of my shell, but when I do, I am bubbly, cheeky, and funny.
I am excitable and enthusiastic about life. A lover of nature and animals. I am as ditsy as they come, but I’m smarter than I ever had believed before now. I have a complicated mind and I don’t think people really understand that my brain processes things differently to others and as a result, my perspective is often different. I have a never-ending list of creative ideas stored in my brain. I struggle with being vulnerable, but I’m so in touch with my emotions... a bit of an empath and slightly psychic, I’m sure.
See the thing is, I’m so much more than I had previously thought. I’m not just an artist, a horse rider, a waitress, a student... these aren’t the things that define us. We can be confined to a bed 24/7 and still be so many things. If only I realised that before when I had felt like I was nothing.
If you’re feeling like you lack a personality and your identity has been taken over fully by an illness, just remember this is ok. Try not to worry about who you are, and who you will be because when your health picks up, I know you will come home to yourself and the character you have always had will shine through. You will know yourself better than ever, and you will be so much more than you were before- because you’re learning, growing and changing for the better with every day that passes.
Know that just by living and going through challenges you are already on a journey to self-discovery.
You can follow Kayleigh’s work at www.kayleighskyesartwork.co.uk
Full post reading by Kemi Rodgers