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The Strengths of the Sick

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My abs are not taut and my push-ups are…let’s just say I get an A+ for effort. I have to be spontaneous on better days, but I can’t jump to meet friends on harder ones. Texts and emails sit for a week when I’m super-tremendously tired. That doesn’t sound good, does it? Until recent years, those negative points stood at the top of my list. Today, time and experience have shown me another side to the chronic illness story.

Perpetually sick people, like myself, have a different set of strengths than the general population. Our life muscles are toned by physical trials, mental puzzles, countless pains, misunderstandings, long journeys and solitary thoughts. Even when we take breaks from school or work – or possibly leave them entirely — we have the capacity to glean wisdom from the world around us. I recognize new-found strengths in both warriors I’ve met along this path and myself.

I am resilient. It takes guts to try over and over, knowing that the results will likely stay the same — or worsen. For instance, every time I seem to improve after a rough patch, it eventually gets worse again. Does that mean I give up fighting for a better quality of life? Certainly not. Instead, I try to improve my attitude when my body doesn’t cooperate. Making up silly songs about the state of things makes it OK for a second. Then, I take that good second and run.

The other patients and families I’ve met strike me as remarkably genuine. We’re all dealing with some level of pain and uncertainty, and that’s a purifying experience. There’s little energy for keeping up appearances or worrying about social status, so we focus on the people. Being open about our triumphs and disappointments allows us to connect with each other on profound levels. I believe that can transfer to other relationships, too.

When much of your time is spent resting, everyday experiences take on more significance. Truth: I look forward to a trip to the grocery store during an extra hard week. Really, there’s one I love and I’ll push to go there. That’s how I got a stellar gingerbread house kit on the way home from the hospital in December. Now, imagine if everybody truly enjoyed their regular errands. Wouldn’t that be great! Many people with chronic illnesses have that mindset — we appreciate the little things.

Living with breathtaking physical and emotional pain forces people to acknowledge their vulnerabilities, their mortality. While the process is super messy, the outcome is often a self-aware person with above-average empathy. I’m still figuring this all out, but I’ve had the good fortune to meet some amazingly caring warriors. They have the courage to let others see their “flaws,” and they don’t minimize anyone else’s hardships. That’s a special knowledge and skill only gained from experience, by dwelling right in the fire.

Our strength is both subtle and mind-blowing. I can go from tears one minute to ridiculous laughing the next. Some people have to get by without the support of a close-knit family, which brings lessons I haven’t needed to learn. Young women and men make health and legal decisions that most others won’t face for decades, as I’ve done for years. Each person gains their own toolkit, and it’s definitely not handed to them in a package deal. If you want to meet a patient, resilient, compassionate and wise person… look for one of us. I’m not promising perfection, but I’ll do my best, as always.

This seems like such a “pat myself on the back” post, and that’s OK. Chronic illness can diminish self-esteem, and being able to see the good developments is important.

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Originally published: January 20, 2017
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