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How Risk in Chronic Illness Feels Like Treading Deep Water

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It’s sometimes human nature to be afraid of the deep end of the pool, or of swimming out past the breakers where the sand drops from under our feet. Deep water is associated with uncertainty, with drowning, with risk. After all, our parents usually labeled the depths as dangerous, warning us to stay in the shallows, and we’ve often passed the same warning to our kids: “Stay in the shallow end where I can see you; don’t go in over your head.” And the first time we did drift (willingly or not) into that deeper, colder water and felt the ground give way and the pressure on our chests as gravity slowly pulled us down, we felt a moment of panic: “Can I keep my head above water?” It was enough to force the air out of our lungs, and we clambered to stay afloat, to simply tread water. 

It’s a similar situation when you live with a chronic, life-threatening illness like lupus. You become immersed — thrown into the deep end of risk in the most negative, high-stakes contexts: your body actively attacks itself; your insurance company calculates how risky an investment you are to determine how much to charge you for premiums, and what they will cover; your doctors calculate risks versus benefits to determine what treatments to attempt and when, and you live with the emotional “time bomb” of never really knowing when your body will fail you again. In some cases, you also live with the uncertainty of whether your loved ones and friends will be able to manage your changes—whether they will still see you as worthy, whether you will be a burden to them, or whether they will leave you. 

And when you experience a change — intentional or unintentional — in your health or your life, or you take on the uncertainties of a new treatment, those aspects of risk can quickly accumulate themselves into a deep, angry ocean. Some days it feels like you’re treading water, and some days it feels like you’re seconds away from drowning. The truth is, it’s difficult to become comfortable with the feeling of risk; you never lose that breath-catching moment when you suddenly float into uncertainty — into the depths. And sometimes you panic, feeling like you’ve lost faith in your ability to tread water, yet you have to — your illness doesn’t give you the option of living outside of the depths, outside of risk.

Trust itself becomes a significant risk. Trust is deep water.

But going willingly into deep water — living consciously, not just consistently with risk — can also make you stronger, and can help you develop trust. 

Even in the frequently inconsistent circumstances of chronic illness, persisting in and through risk can set the stage for deep reward. If you’re always in deep water, you eventually recognize the need for patience for yourself and for your body that is actively fighting, doing the work of preventing you from drowning, and that patience can transfer into other aspects of your life as well. You learn through consistency and persistence to hold space and float on your back when you’re tired, and to move forward when you’ve rested — to trust the often challenging processes of change, healing and growth as ultimately positive in nature. There can be satisfaction in knowing that by looking at risk head-on and living within it, you’ve become strong enough not just to tread water, but to relax as you swim; that you can trust yourself and the people you love to stay afloat, and that you are strong enough to lose sight of the shore, let go of the ground, and to enjoy the weightless beauty of the water around you. Consciously and consistently risking the depths calms the water in the sense that, no matter the circumstances, you know you will swim… that risk is also reward.

Photo by Alice Alinari on Unsplash

Originally published: July 11, 2019
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