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Why I Am Not 'Fighting' My Chronic Illness

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When I first started to experience the symptoms of what later came to be diagnosed as multiple chronic illnesses, there was one thing I was adamant about: this was not going to be my life. Naively perhaps, I was sure I was going to figure out the cause of my symptoms, find the right treatment and then be cured. It was simply a blip in the road, not my whole life. In pursuit of this aim of being cured, I saw doctor after doctor, had more tests and treatments than I can possibly count and was stabbed with needles, given tablets and handed physiotherapy sheets.

I was in a fight with my body, and single-minded in my belief I was going to win.

Very quickly after my symptoms began, my body came to be “other” to me. It suddenly didn’t seem to be part of me at all. Suddenly, I felt split into “me” and “my body” in a way I hadn’t experienced before. As a result of all the physical symptoms, my body increasingly prevented me from doing many things I used to take for granted and made me happy. With all these difficulties, I came to view my body as some sort of “thing” that was causing me pain, fatigue, dizziness and lots more. It felt like an entity seemingly determined to destroy my work life, my relationships and my physical and emotional well-being. Sometimes I would physically look down at my body and feel all kinds of negative emotions toward it. And for all that, I was going to defeat it and beat it into submission with whatever weapons there were in the medical arsenal provided by my doctors. I was going to be cured, no matter what it took.

My thoughts about trying to defeat my body and illnesses, as I later noticed, mirrored a lot of talk around illness in general. Well-meaning friends and family encouraged me to “fight” my conditions and not let them win. They said I had to be strong and not give in. Similar things were said to me by doctors and nurses, and I’ve seen and heard a lot of similar rhetoric in the media. It is almost as though we are supposed to yell a rallying cry once we are diagnosed with an illness, prepare our weapons and charge into battle, all guns blazing. It’s us against our bodies, and one or other of us is going to win. 

All this imagery of fighting and battles in relation to illness it seems, to me at least, to be profoundly harmful. It took me a while to realize this, I admit. Aside from setting up an inaccurate and problematic disconnect between mind and body, the language of fighting chronic illness sets us up to fail. A “fight” suggests a battle that will either be won or lost. Well, chronic conditions are just that: chronic. For many people, a chronic condition is something they will live with for years, decades or the rest of their lives. For the latter group of people, including myself, it may be possible to control symptoms and have them lessen the intensity of their impact on your life, but they won’t be “cured” of the condition itself.

Talking in terms of a fight, then, simply means you are the loser. If a condition is chronic, then you will never win because it is impossible to do so. A “cure” is unlikely to be found for many chronic conditions. So, you are fighting your body for something that simply isn’t possible. The body wins, and you do not.

And how soul destroying is that? To always be the loser? Profoundly so, in my opinion.

Better then, in my opinion, to refrain from talk of “battles” and “fights” in relation to chronic illness and focus on management and “living with” a condition. A few years ago I would have heard the term “management” as defeat. It would have meant giving up or conceding to a life I didn’t want. Most of all, it would have meant failure. And the stubborn part of my nature wouldn’t have accepted that.

Now, as I write this after living with chronic illness for a number of years, there is still a tiny part of my mind that thinks these things, and I’m not going to pretend otherwise. Coming to terms with having a chronic condition is a complicated, messy and often lengthy process. Yet, I also acknowledge that engaging in a fight with my body has only meant that, in the past, I treated it (read: myself) unkindly. I spoke to myself in harsh terms, berated my body for not letting me do as I please. The outcome of this is obvious even if I couldn’t see it for a long time: unhappiness and feeling like a failure.

So I switched up my perception of my body and my conditions. I changed the language I used to think about how I was going to live with my conditions. Was it always easy? No, there are still times when I feel frustration, fear and disappointment. But instead of trying to enter into a battle with my body, I am trying to work out what makes me, as a whole person, tick. It isn’t always simple or easy, and it is an ongoing process to try and figure it out. In all likelihood, it probably can’t be fully figured out, not least of which because my chronic illnesses ebb and flow in their symptoms and so trying to be “spot on” with treatments is like trying to hit a moving target. (Excuse the battle analogy there!) Sometimes, you get it right; other times, it doesn’t work out.

“Managing” chronic illness, to use that language, doesn’t mean defeat. It doesn’t mean submitting to your body or giving up. It certainly doesn’t mean you are lazy or can’t be bothered. As most people who live with chronic illness will know, managing symptoms actually involves a lot of “doing,” whether it is eating a particular diet, doing physiotherapy, medications, exercise or other activities. Management is definitely not doing nothing. Quite the opposite.

So, instead of fighting my body I am going to try and work out how my whole self can be the best version it can. It’s not an easy task. It involves a lot of time and effort. I have come to realize the management of my chronic illnesses is a much more positive way of living my life. It makes me focus upon the pleasurable activities that will help my symptoms, whether it is walking in the park or cooking a delicious meal. Those activities aren’t about trying to beat my body into submission — they are about enjoyment and living life. In those activities, I am not “fighting” in a battle with my body. There aren’t any winners or losers. I’m just living my life the best way I can. And surely that is the best, ongoing achievement there is.

Photo by Kari Shea on Unsplash

Originally published: March 9, 2019
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