how many times have you heard any of the following said about a person with a serious illness:
- she never complained. not even once.
- he never asked “why me?”
- she just accepted it – she didn’t go around feeling sorry for herself.
- he had the most positive attitude all the time, no matter how bad the pain got.
i hear and read about these accolades all the time. stories of people who have a purely positive reaction to life with a chronic or life-threatening illness. people who never complain, never get angry, never feel shortchanged. this, in my opinion, is a myth. a myth of painless suffering. we want to present an image of acceptance and peace that misrepresents the complexity of battling a major illness.
where are these angelic sufferers? these people who never say “uncle?” do they even exist? maybe they do, maybe they don’t. my hunch is that they experience the same ups and downs of life with a health scare that i do. maybe they don’t say it out loud. or maybe the person telling the story just doesn’t know. as someone who lives with chronic mental illness i experience a vast array of emotions, many of which are painful to sit with. i have complained, vented and felt sorry for myself. i don’t go skipping through each day of depression with a smile permanently planted on my face, thanking god that i am sick because it makes me a stronger person.
whether it’s cancer or depression or chronic arthritis, life with ongoing pain and uncertainty about when it will stop is often harrowing and exhausting. disease can be so ugly. so torturous. so frightening. this myth about painless suffering holds us to an impossible standard – to be sick without really being sick. don’t get me wrong – i am an advocate for positive thinking and living with hope. and ideally, we can get to a place where we find peace and acceptance with our illness, but we have to travel through the pain to get there – not skip it over. i don’t believe in painless suffering. i do believe in living the journey through illness with an attitude of honesty and self-acceptance.
in my experience, there is nothing wrong with complaining or sharing about the challenges of an illness. often we can learn things about our condition by processing out loud, rather than holding in. frustration, anger, disbelief and sadness are valuable emotions that deserve to be expressed and explored. i believe it’s normal to ask “why me?” when grappling with the enormity of a major health problem. as humans we naturally ask the question “why?” because we are trying to make sense of the world around us. this process allows us to move forward to a place of genuine acceptance.
we who are living through health crises have the right to feel sorry for ourselves – we face unique challenges in our daily lives. big challenges that often feel insurmountable. feeling sorry for ourselves doesn’t prevent us from carrying on. by showing kindness and compassion to our experience of pain we also grow our ability to show kindness to others who are suffering.
and finally, it’s not realistic to expect ourselves to have a “positive” attitude all the time. some days hurt like hell and the pain feels unbearable. other days we have more energy and the load feels a little lighter. it’s ok to have ups and downs. it’s ok to feel desperately frustrated with your medications or treatments – or lack thereof. it’s ok to feel angry with our doctors. our emotions do not need to be labeled as “positive” or “negative” – they just are. some days we feel hopeful, other days we feel scared. both feelings are equally important.
so if you are faced with an illness i encourage you to acknowledge the pain. if you are supporting someone who is facing an illness, acknowledge their pain and allow them to express it. forget the myth of pain-free suffering and live your own messy experience of what it is to have a sickness. question. have faith. scream. be silent. talk. listen. complain. accept. feel anger. feel love. cry. laugh. feel fear. feel hope.
feel hope. always, always feel hope.