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The Danger of Thinking 'Strength' and 'Positivity' Can Cure Illness

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A guy I dated once told me with complete sincerity he believed I had the intelligence and mental strength to make my fibromyalgia go away. I know he meant it as encouragement and a compliment on my intellect, but what he was actually telling me was that my condition could be cured with positive thinking. That could only be possible if my chronic illness were “all in my head.” It’s not. It’s real.

I’m all about positive thinking. It seems like half the articles on my personal blog have to do with how to stay positive in difficult situations, but to push it as any type of cure is harmful. First of all, as I just mentioned, it minimizes whatever it is that we’re going through.

I’m going to try to say this without getting political. I don’t like to be political because my mission is always to inspire and help people — all people, not just those who agree that the Romantic era has the best opera (it does), or that I have the best dog ever (I do). I do want to talk about President Trump, as a celebrity, as a leader whom many look up to and as someone who was infected with and treated for COVID-19.

I dug through his Twitter and watched two videos he posted after his hospitalization and treatment. I went straight to the source so I could have an opinion without being told what it should be.

I also saw the conversation around the president’s recovery from COVID-19. The president himself tweeted that we shouldn’t be “afraid of COVID.” Many credited the president’s recovery to his “positive attitude” and “strength.” Newt Gingrich tweeted, “President Trump’s quick recovery and optimistic attitude is a repudiation of their deepest pathologies…They want to live in fear. He refuses to live in fear.”

Here’s my opinion:

Many of his statements are uplifting and encouraging, just like those of my well-meaning boyfriend who believed I could cure my fibromyalgia with my mighty brain. I would love to believe this new medicine he was given at the Walter Reed Medical Center is so great it’s practically a cure. I would love to believe it’ll be available to everyone, free of charge, within weeks. I would love to believe everyone can recover from COVID-19 with such ease.

But, believing his statements is not only difficult, but dangerous. Again I’ll say we cannot in any situation let one person’s experience fully represent a group. My irritable bowel syndrome is different than your IBS. In fact, my IBS today is different than my IBS yesterday. President Trump’s coronavirus experience is different than that of my friend’s father, who is devastated to learn he’ll be hospitalized for another month to treat his COVID. Different than my friend’s best friend who is on a ventilator now and is not improving and they’re begging for prayers. Different from my business associate’s friend, a healthy middle-aged man, who just couldn’t beat it and died.

And access to medical care is not even a guarantee for many Americans.

Depression is a real illness; it can’t be “fixed” if we just “look at the bright side.” Auto-immune diseases are real; a flare-up can’t be prevented with yoga and meditation. Many of our disabilities and conditions are invisible, but they are most definitely not contained in our minds, and we have no more control over the onset of anxiety than you do with the onset of a stomach flu.

Yes, positivity definitely helps. It’s just one part of self-care that I practice every day to help manage my symptoms, but, if I were to believe I could cure myself and give that a solid try, I’d end up just feeling like a big failure and spiral into a terrible gloom of hopelessness. Or I’d stop listening to my body’s limitations and do things that might cause permanent damage. That’s what happens when you oversell a “cure.”

It’s bad enough when an able-bodied person minimizes the severity of my conditions. It’s even worse when it’s done by someone who shares one of my diagnoses. When someone comes out saying they cured their own fibromyalgia or reversed their own arthritis, using positive thinking or whatever snake oil, that harms me and everyone with our diagnoses. It is a powerful, believable perpetuation of a toxic myth — one that crushes our credibility and impedes further research, treatment and aid. I wish they would just be mindful that they’re representing an entire identity group and that not everyone gets that we are all different individuals with different experiences.

Gosh, I would love to see this cure happen and everything open back up. I’m one of the many whose small businesses were crushed by this pandemic (I’m a speaker, on hidden disabilities). But we must continue to be careful. We are all different, and I don’t want it to be me, or you, who breaks hearts by leaving this world too soon because we didn’t take this virus seriously.

It’s real.

Image provided by Getty Images

Originally published: October 13, 2020
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