The Mighty Logo

The Beauty of Surrender in Chronic Illness

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

God helps those who help themselves.”

If I had a penny for every time I heard this…

Self-sufficiency has become a fundamental part of our culture. After all, the American dream was based off of working hard to make your dreams come true, and overcoming all the odds to succeed.

But what happens when you cannot help yourself? When the things that you need, were promised and are deemed medically necessary to treat your condition are taken out of your hands, or were never in them to begin with? What happens when the treatment you need to stop your disease from progressing, or at least to slow it down, is in the hands of political bureaucrats who care more about their money than about the fact that their delay could cause your body irreparable damage? What choice do you have when your treatment is under the control of doctors who are so over-worked and burned out they cannot set aside the time to line up your treatment, whose busy lives and hectic schedules go against their oath to “do no harm” as you continue to deteriorate from delay after delay?

What happens when you cannot do anything to remedy your situation, and are forced to sit with your helplessness, knowing there is nothing humanly possible you can do to make things move faster, smoother, cheaper, when you are at the mercy of others?

Chronic illness has a way of teaching you helplessness. Not in the sense that you sit by and expect others to do everything for you, but in the way there is nothing you can do to save yourself. You can take all of your prescribed medications, see all the experts, or — let’s be real — put your name on their waitlist and hope they call before you’re too far gone for their help, submit yourself to all kinds of treatments, eat all the right food, and still be sick and keep getting sicker. You can do every single thing right and have every single thing go wrong.

There is something so raw, real and terrifying about having your life out of your hands. Sure, I mean you can decide what you want to eat, what clothes to wear and how to treat others, but the of life where you control yourself and your body, the part of you that everyone assumes makes you human, does not belong to you.

Our society likes to think we can do anything we set our minds to, and that our fate, destiny, future or anything else you believe in rests solely in our hands; that working hard, studying constantly and pure determination can get you anywhere you want to go. We want to believe that all you need to advance in life is a good attitude and work ethic.

Perhaps those of us with chronic illness are often considered outcasts because we shatter the perfect illusion that our world is so fond of. We show that life can hit you out of nowhere and leave you on the ground, unable to get up, reliant on others, with no way to fix your situation. Society likes nice neat bows that wrap up all the messy threads of life. Either get better and win, or die and lose. The middle ground of a war of battles lost as often as won show the ugly truth, that we do not have complete and total control over our lives, that pure determination is not always enough to win.

You can have all the determination in the world, but if your body is failing you, you cannot will it to function. You can call an insurance company everyday, beg, plead, curse and cry, but you cannot make them approve the treatment you need. You can scream at the top of your lungs until you are blue in the face, but you cannot force a doctor to hear what you are saying, see your desperation, or soften their heart enough to care.

I would argue that the helplessness, judgment and shame that come with chronic illness are some of the worst parts of being sick. The loneliness and isolation that accompany can be as painful as the illness itself. The messy threads wind tight around your neck, and you must wait for someone to help you untangle yourself.

You are stripped bare, your humanity on display for all to see. While most wear capes and put on the show that they are superhuman, you are left exposed with all of your weaknesses on display, all of your scars apparent.

But that is where the beauty comes in. When you are raw, real, human, exposed… when your humanity is on display and you are who you are made to be. When you are purely you, walker, rollator, wheelchair, cane and all. Asking for and accepting help, crying for relief, on your knees sobbing, surrounded by onlookers… beautifully broken.

Sometimes when we are stripped bare and exposed we have the most dignity.

Photo by Sasha Freemind on Unsplash

Originally published: April 6, 2020
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home