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Going Beyond 'You're So Brave' When We Talk About Chronic Illness

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“Oh well, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

That simple phrase was nearly the death knell of my first relationship. I had been explaining the effect my brother’s recent bone marrow transplant and my bone marrow donation had on my family. You Mighties out there don’t need me to tell you how minimizing such a short statement can be for a complex, draining and life-changing situation. But are there alternatives to pushing away those who reduce our complex realities to convenient platitudes?

I used to think life was too short to educate people into how better to support me, and I told myself that even if eternal life became a possibility, teaching a course on hand-holding would still not be my number one priority. Yet I did start to thirst for an alternative to pushing those like my inept boyfriend away when I realized my experience of pain and my righteous indignation didn’t necessarily leave me any the wiser about what to say when my boss was diagnosed with advanced cancer. This time it was me floundering around for the right words. I had no idea how to help, and I’m ashamed to say I cried about how tragic the situation seemed to me in his presence. While I’d rather forget about that, I will always remember his composure when faced with his disease, and his awkward colleagues. How on earth did he not lose his cool?

It may have taken me nigh in 20 years, but I think I’m finally getting some perspective on the things people say to someone facing a difficult health situation. I’ve recently had problems with what my doctors currently think is a rare and lifelong neurological problem which affects my balance, and although it is not degenerative, we don’t yet know whether it is treatable or not. Things are looking up, but I’ve found the diagnostic process an emotional roller coaster and as a result of time off work, I lost my job.

This time, someone told me they admired how I was coping. I could have taken this “you’re so brave” comment as I did my first boyfriend’s remark, feeling that I was being set apart, compartmentalized and reduced to a pat phrase. But perhaps because this person has been such an amazing friend, I could see an opportunity to start a conversation. “Thanks. I do feel I’m coping better than expected. I’m sure you would too if you find yourself in a similar situation,” I said.

The problem with telling people they are brave is that it propagates the myth that the world is divided into the strong and the weak, the brave and the cowardly. I tend to think that equating sick or disabled with brave is a subtle way of quarantining ill people. If “they” are not like “us” healthy types, then there’s no way it can happen to us too.

Telling someone they would be brave too is a way of bringing us back to the reality that ill health and disability can happen to anyone, anytime. Perhaps only the rare person is born brave and ready to face disability or debilitating illnesses, but in the right circumstances, many of us can become more courageous than we ever imagined.

It’s also an opportunity to spread the word that courage is more complex than the appearance of strength. It is not about not freaking out, but about not freaking out about the freaking out, and living through another day to see what comes next. It’s about finding the people who believe you have it in you to fight another round, and who will be by your side whether you leave the ring victorious or bruised and bloody-nosed. And above all, it means never, ever claiming we consider ourselves above those who fail to rise from the canvas before the bell rings.

For there but for the grace of a friend — a friend that dared to go beyond brave with me — go I.

Getty image by Milkos.

Originally published: January 21, 2019
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