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When You're Chronically Ill and Trying to Avoid the Comparison Trap

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This weekend, my husband and I went to a wedding near his hometown for two of his high school friends. Some of his friends are people I haven’t seen since our own wedding four and a half years ago.

My husband’s friends are a group of generally very hard-working, successful people, and I love them all a whole bunch. They are a lot of engineers, pharmacists, and scientists, and already doing very well for themselves in their early to mid 20s.

At gatherings of people that know each other well, but haven’t seen each other in quite a while, the same questions are bound to come up over and over, “How are you? What are you doing now? Where are you living? Where are you working?” And you, in turn, ask similar questions back. If you know them and are already connected on social media, as I am with most of the friends I saw at the wedding, you may have some familiarity with some areas of their life, so the questions may become more targeted.

I answer a lot of questions about my 3 and a half year old daughter, because I am one of the only parents in our friend group. I am always more than happy to talk about her. I also end up talking some about my health, because I am open about my struggles with chronic illness and my upcoming appointments and potential surgery. I do my best to be honest about that as well, as honesty and candidness are big things I pride myself on as an advocate for chronic illness – though it’s never nearly as fun as the little one’s antics.

Sometimes, during these exchanges, I can’t help my mind from spinning and starting the comparisons.

“They’re so much more successful than you,” my anxiety will try to say, trying to spin me into that negative thought trap and out of having a good time. “If only you were healthy and actually working full-time year-round. Think about how much more you could accomplish.”

One’s 20s is a fragile time in life to fall into the comparison trap, no matter what their health is. But when you add chronic illness, it can feel like the playing field is more uneven – and it can make you feel like even more of a failure, if you let it.

And comparison traps aren’t only present with chronically ill people being tempted to compare themselves to healthy people. (Or people they think are healthy, as we never truly know everyone’s personal inner struggles.)

It happens both ways. Chronically ill people can see someone who has an illness and doing awesome things with their life – advocating for the cause, working their dream job, and heck, even just wearing jeans every day – and another chronically ill person wonders why they can’t do the same things. Sometimes, this unfortunately turns into jealousy and attacking other chronically ill people seen as “more successful” or even “faking it.”

Often, I see this taking the form of internet commenters complaining about a celebrity or even just a normal writer who is able to hold down a full-time job despite their illness, “Wouldn’t it be nice to work. I can’t even get out of bed thanks to my illness.” At its most toxic, this turns into infighting in the chronic illness community, a chronically ill dog chasing its own tail. Or, even worse, accusing others of “not being sick enough” to “truly” be chronically ill.

And on the other side of this, those of us who are still working can feel like we aren’t ill enough, like we live every day as fakers, despite our daily pain and diagnosises, and that people are just waiting around every corner, waiting to call us out as the “not sick enough” frauds we are. Not sick enough to be chronically ill, not healthy enough to be successful; the comparison trap does its best to make you feel like a failure in whatever realm you dwell in.

Something I try hard to remind myself, and that I am lucky to have wonderful people in my life reminding me, is that there is no place for the comparison trap. It’s worthless to compare one’s own journey to someone else’s.

Everyone’s journey is different, and everyone’s journey is important.

When we are chronically ill, our journeys might look slow and our steps might seem small, but every day I remind myself that life is not a race. Progress is still progress. Just because I had to set aside some of my dreams, like self-publishing a novel, so I can focus on getting brain surgery, doesn’t mean they aren’t going to happen. Just because my career doesn’t look like the trajectory I saw myself going on when I entered graduate school doesn’t mean it’s not a worthy, necessary job that touches lives of children every day and makes a difference in the world, while at the same time allowing me to be part-time during the school year and focus on my health right now.

I wrote a post a little while back about how my scripture reading habit has become essential to my self-care. In my daily scripture reading practice, I often go through seasons where I gravitate to certain characters or scriptures that help me in my current season, and I end up reading every single different perspective I can on them.

Right now, the Biblical character I’m really resonating with is Joseph – the one with the multicolored coat, not the husband of Mary. Joseph had big dreams, and big struggles. He went from being the favored son of his father to being thrown into a pit by his brothers, sold into slavery, thrown in jail…and eventually made a remarkable recovery to be the second in command in all of Egypt, saving his entire family in the process.

But Joseph’s journey didn’t happen overnight. It took approximately 22 years for him to go from pit to his brothers bowing before him in the palace! Twenty-two years of struggling is a long time…and while I don’t relate to the exact kinds of struggling Joseph went through, and I can’t imagine the horrors, what I can relate to is holding suffering around in my body for years and years, clinging to hope, wondering if it’s still OK to dream when I feel like my body might give out on me at any minute.

One of the best Bible study plans I’ve tread about Joseph is “The Joseph Challenge,” by Dr. Kanayo Dike-Oduah, available for free on the YouVersion Bible app. On the last day of the plan, Dr. Kanayo writes, “Remember that your life is important. You are necessary. Your God-dream, God-vision, God-idea and purpose is what someone else needs.”

We weren’t designed to be all the same. Chronic illness sucks, and I’m not one to say “everything happens for a reason,” because some things are just awful, pure and simple. But what I do believe is that God can take everything, even the crappiest things, and use them for God’s own glory. And I believe God gives dreams to everyone: healthy and ill, and everyone in between.

The thing about dreams is that they take time, and everyone’s dream operates on a different timeline. Struggles don’t mean dreams won’t come true. In fact, if you look at most success stories, there is a great deal of struggle and pain in all of them.

The only person I want to compare myself to is…myself. Am I at a different place, a better place, holistically, than I was a year ago? I can answer that question with a resounding “yes.” Sure, my symptoms are getting worse, but my symptoms do not define me.

So much more has changed for the better. I made my resolution word for 2017 “wellness,” and as we near the end of 2017, I am generally so much more well. I have better self-care practices and better self-esteem. I love my new job and new church. I spend more time with my daughter and husband. We are working towards medical answers and treatment, and I have accepted that my diagnoses are a part of me but don’t define me. I’m writing more and have a solid Bible reading habit. I’ve cut out negative habits. All in all, that progress that I am sure will continue, despite inevitable bumps on the road, is the only comparison I need.

This post originally appeared on Writer Kat.

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Thinkstock Image By: Massonstock 

Originally published: April 5, 2023
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