The 'Six Feet Under' Line I Remember When I Hear Opinions About My Health
“Six Feet Under” is a series that I find myself returning to time and time again. At different points in my life, it’s revealed something new to me that I didn’t see before, or at least appreciate. I’m drawn to it for its candor and unapologetic bravery with which it takes the things in life’s peripheral vision and makes us look directly at it. The more we see it, the greater our understanding of it grows, and we become less afraid. You could say the show has influenced me to look more closely at the way my life is being constructed and influenced.
So what does this have to do with chronic illness? There is a scene in the penultimate episode, “Static,” in which a grief-stricken Claire drives to the site where her brother Nate is buried and has an imagined conversation with his memory. As the pain pours out of her, he cuts in: “Stop listening to the static.” He explains that everything – life, death etc. – has static spread through it, like the noise when the TV isn’t picking up a signal. It’s noise and nothing else, he says; if you listen to it too much, it’ll do you in. The static is the commotion of everything else in the world except yourself.
A person experiencing chronic illness knows this static can be tremendously harmful. It seeks to deny our reality and by listening to it, we deny it ourselves. It seems like everyone has an opinion on what’s happening to us – everyone wants an opinion, like sharing it will change its course. It prevents us from being vulnerable, from sharing our essential truths. Furthermore, when we listen only to the static, we’re trying to fulfill the world, but is it reciprocated? Is our existence validated? Who’s listening to us?
When we’re suffering, we seek understanding and empathy. It’s a natural thing we do as members of a society in which we want to feel counted. Chronic illness is a part of a person who matters just as much as anyone else. But we battle against a concept of wellness and recovery with a focus on elimination and conditions/cures that are already well-understood. Chronic illness is complex; it has no established, uniform processes. So the conversations – well, commotion – around that is framed by the expectation of a process and recovery outcome, and when none can be found, blame is assigned. The people experiencing chronic illness are sometimes invited to participate but rarely valued. Its effects can be broken down into things we’ve all had to hear: “You’re still sick?” “Are you sure it’s real?” “Don’t you want to get better?” “The pain can’t be that bad.” “It must be nice sleeping all you want and not having to work.” “Blah blah Big Pharma blah…” “You could do that yesterday so you must be faking.” “You’ve got a sickness mindset.” “Just think positive thoughts.”
Think about what we feel when we’re trying to listen to something on the radio or watch a TV show and the signal keeps dropping out. It drives us up the wall in no time. Important fragments of the message are getting chewed up by the noise and we’re missing vital pieces that tell the whole story. We start swatting at the device, fiddling with knobs, swearing at it like we’re eight drinks in at the bar and we want to pick a fight. But what’s the intrusive sound in all the blips and hisses? Nothing. It’s chaos. It existence is based on interference.
You see where I’m going with this? That’s not to say that some things aren’t worth listening to in the world of someone with a chronic illness, and I’m not advocating shutting everything out full-stop. But if we recognize that something is interfering, that’s something that isn’t going to be helpful to us and is just getting in the way of what matters to us.
I believe the kindest thing we can do for ourselves is to stop listening to the static. Although chronic illness has a way of robbing us of so many choices, we still possess the power to decide certain things are worth listening to or whether they’re just noise. This can only help our well-being, because as the chaos begins to settle down, we can hear a voice clearer and clearer that we recognize as belonging to ourselves. The voice tells us what we want for our existence before anyone else chiming in one what we can/can’t/should/shouldn’t have. Tune in to yourself first and foremost. The rest is static.
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