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When People Think I'm 'Not Trying Hard Enough' to Fight My Illness

When you deal with chronic illness every day since childhood, you realize very quickly that in general, most people don’t understand life with chronic illness. Of the many comments that have hurt through the years, the one I hate most of all is when people say or insinuate that I’m “not trying hard enough.”

There are times that people have had the audacity to say this directly to me, or directly to my mom, who is my primary caregiver. Other times, people may not say it to my face, but I find out through others that they were saying it behind my back. And there are some times, though they may not say it in those words, I still feel it’s insinuated by other comments. Every time I’m asked why I can’t do something, I feel like people are making a veiled attempt to say I’m lazy or not trying hard enough. In truth, there are always reasons I do the things I do, and reasons I do not do the things I don’t do.

For instance, I don’t drive because it’s not safe for me or safe for others on the road. Between chronic pain, lack of muscle control, and lack of concentration due to fatigue, I’m being responsible by not driving because the risk of a wreck is just too high.

As an adjective, the definition of “trying” from the Merriam-Webster dictionary is “severely straining the powers of endurance.” I think the comment “you are not trying hard enough” is insane, for truthfully, chronic illness is one of the most trying experiences one can ever endure. 

Each day, I push my body to the height of my endurance, just trying to accomplish basic tasks most able-bodied individuals take for granted every day. Five years ago, I had lost so much muscle mass and strength that I couldn’t even turn over in bed; I could not sit up or stand up on my own. I somehow managed to walk extremely short distances, and my physical therapist credited my God-given tenacity for that, saying with the amount of weakness I had, walking should have been absolutely impossible. I had to walk cautiously, paying close attention to each step, and balancing against the hallway wall or else I would fall. Since then, I’ve slowly become stronger, but I still fight everyday trying to regain certain tasks. When you have a muscle disease, even when you beat the odds and improve, the abilities do not return overnight. It can take months and sometimes years to just regain a single ability. Even when I finally regain an ability, it will come only after many failed attempts of my best effort, and this can grow difficult and discouraging.

Another reason this comment bothers me is because it implies that I somehow want to be sick. Just because I’ve come to a point of acceptance in my illness, and have found a way to have joy in my circumstances through my faith in God, does not mean this is what I would willingly choose for my life. In truth, I’ve had many setbacks with my illness, but not because I wasn’t trying hard enough. The worst flare came because I tried so hard I threw my body into a full-0ut flare, one that almost took my life. It’s essential that I am careful to try hard enough without trying too hard, or I will I actually cause myself more pain and illness.

People with chronic illness are not lazy or underachievers. If anything, we are warriors. We live with what can feel like overwhelming circumstances, yet many of us find a way to continue to smile in the face of adversity. We fight an unrelenting and uninvited assailant every second of the day, one that we didn’t ask for and didn’t want for our lives. Yet we manage to keep going, keep smiling, keep finding ways to live our lives with purpose in spite of all that is against us. That’s not being lazy or weak; that’s being courageous and strong.

So next time you are tempted to tell your chronically ill friends they “are not trying hard enough,” bite your tongue and instead take a moment to think about all the unknown battles they are facing each day. Take the time to learn, really learn about what they are going through. If you really open your heart and mind to their story, I am sure that you will find out that they are stronger than you could ever imagine.