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Why People With Chronic Illness Can't Simply 'Push Through'

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It never ceases to frustrate me to realize how pervasive the “Just Do It” culture is. Whenever I discuss my physical limitations with others, I’m often met with the suggestion that I simply need to “push through.” Which leaves me wondering, what does this phrase really mean to a healthy person?

As someone with multiple chronic illnesses, I realize that I can sometimes stretch my limitations for a day or two. I might need to push myself a little extra for a special occasion, or to get a necessary task completed. But that extra effort usually leads to a “crash.” There is no “pushing through” once I hit the metaphorical brick wall. When I’ve hit my normal limit, I might be able to keep pushing myself for an extra day, or even a few weeks. But regardless, I will eventually hit my ultimate limit: the “brick wall” and I will crash. If I get to this point, there is literally nothing more I can do.

It’s about like driving your car until it hits empty. I usually stop for gas when I hit the three-quarters mark, just to be safe. I could wait until it lands on “E,” although that is risky. But even once your car is on empty, you usually have a certain amount of gas left. You can risk it and keep driving, but eventually your car will completely stop. When there is no more gas left, your car is not going anywhere no matter how many positive thoughts you have. For people with chronic illnesses, we tend to live our lives in the space between empty and completely out of gas. Some people learn their limits well enough to stop before they completely run dry; some of us will try to “push through” until we have literally nothing left.

Like the car that has run out of gas, when I do crash or hit the wall, I’m completely unable to move. On the worst days, I’ve had moments where I started crying because I desperately needed to go to the bathroom, but the very idea of trying to get up and walk the few short feet to the bathroom was overwhelming. I’ve had times when I was so tired that I would stare at the food on my plate realizing I was still hungry, but could barely lift my fork to keep eating. There are days when I can’t even sit on my couch because I don’t have the energy to stay up right and I simply have to collapse. I feel like a block of ice melting on the sidewalk on a hot day. There is no amount of will or effort that can keep me from slowly melting into my couch, and even then I feel like I’ll just melt right through to the floor. I get terrible brain fog that makes it hard to think clearly. I’ll lose my train of thought mid-sentence, or forget words, or not have the energy to even speak. I’ll find it impossible to read as I don’t have the mental energy to process words, and I’ll simply end up rereading the same sentences over and over again, without processing what they said.

This “crash” can last for days or weeks, but I never know in advance how long it will be. It means that choosing to expend extra effort is a constant risk for me, like driving on fumes without knowing how far the nearest gas station will be.

I realized however, that for my healthy friends, the idea is that if they “just do it” and keep “pushing through” they will eventually reach the “other side.” If they keep exercising even when it hurts and they are tired, they will eventually get to the point (after days or weeks maybe) that they have more energy, and that working out will take less effort. I realized they do not understand, because for them there is an “other side” (an eventual goal they can and will meet if they expend enough effort). They can “push through” because there will be an eventual point where they no longer have to try so hard. That was the moment I realized what my healthy friends don’t understand: there is no “other side” for those of us with chronic illness. I can’t just “push through” and keep going, because there is no point to push through to. The more I push, the harder it will become, until I can push no more.

So please understand, when I say “I can’t,” I don’t need a healthy person’s motivation to “just do it.” I’m not being lazy or unwilling to make an effort to improve, I’m being sensitive to my reality. I might be able to keep “pushing through” for awhile, but eventually I will hit empty.

Photo by Eddie Kopp on Unsplash

Originally published: May 22, 2018
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