Sunday, December 2, 2012

No Happy Thinking Required

I'm bringing this post back from the vaults, it's a post from the very early days of this blog, when I had little exposure. Now that a few of you are listening (*waves*) I'd like to revive this piece.

First, let me introduce you to this internet gem... (edited for work-safe content)

A 23-year old medical student makes lists of all the tasks that he must accomplish each day. He spends hours studying and refuses to go out with his colleagues even when there are no tests on the immediate horizon, preferring to spend his time looking at specimens in the laboratory. He keeps meticulous notes during all his classes and prefers to attend every lecture, not trusting his colleagues to take notes for him. He is doing well in school and has a girlfriend who is also a medical student. Which of the following disorders does this student most likely have?
B. Obsessive-compulsive personality disorder
C. Obsessive-compulsive traits
D. Schizoid personality disorder
E. Paranoid personality disorder
[and written in] F. F*** you, that sounds totally normal. A**hole.

[Full article:]

Now, let's look at this little gem picked up from a site offering professional services (yes, for money) for coping with chronic pain ...

Catastrophic thinking involves magnifying a negative situation so that it seems more negative than it is, worrying and ruminating about it, and holding pessimistic beliefs about the future. It makes coping with pain more difficult.  Here are some examples:

“My back is killing me.” (magnification)
“I can’t stop worrying about what my headaches might mean.” (worry and rumination)
“No treatments will ever help me.” (pessimism)
“My life is ruined because of my pain.” (magnification)
“I spend most of my time thinking about my pain.” (worry and rumination)
“I’ll never get better.” (pessimism)
Catastrophic thoughts don't help you cope with the pain.

*rolls eyes* Here's my take on the above:

My disease is killing me. I carry an emergency shot and wear a medic alert in case it tries to suddenly, which it has. Ain't a magnification if it's true. And I have to remember how fragile I am so I can act with the appropriate care. That's just responsible.

If I stopped "worrying" about what my headaches might have meant, I'd be dead now, thanks. I'm going to continue to "worry" about my symptoms, because symptoms mean there's something wrong, a**hole! (to steal from the line above...)

No treatment is possible right now. That's not pessimism, that's just a fact. Soon as that changes, I'll do a dance of joy, but until then, I've got to live with reality... not "someday."

My life has been ruined because of my pain. My career? Over. Finances? FUBAR. Credit score? Ha! Having progeny? Not possible. Scars? Lots. Irreparable damage to my body? You bet. That life? Gone. I will never be the same. Again, not a magnification if it's true.

I do spend most of the time thinking about my pain. But that's because I'm usually IN pain. I use denial as much as possible, but I can only do so much of that safely. And there are other responsible reasons to think about it even when I'm not in pain. Worry and rumination aren't inherently bad things!

I'll never get better. This is both true and not true. I'm not going to get better but I can live better. This is a degenerative disease. The only thing I can reasonably hope for is better management of my symptoms. But it's like throwing a wet blanket over a radio: sure it muffles the sound, but the problem is still broadcasting loud and clear. That's realism, not pessimism.


The problem with these well-meaning sites is that there are going to be people, like me, who look at that list and think they're failing somehow because they can't get to these so-called benchmarks of psychological health. But it's not a failing of ours... it's a no-win situation imposed by our disease. 

So let's try rewriting that list a bit more positive-realistically...

My disease is killing me, but it's been losing so far! Ha!

My symptoms may mean something important. I will trust my intuition and work with my health providers to create a constructive plan in addressing them. 

No treatment may ever help me, but I can keep an open mind and give new ideas a chance to work. Even if no treatment ever does help me, I can say that I tried and find other constructive things to do with my life in the meantime.

My old life was ruined by my pain. So I'm making a new life that thrives despite the pain.

I may spend most of my time thinking about my pain, but I make sure that it is within reason. If it is to prepare for, manage, prevent or resolve my pain, that's responsible thinking. If it's to look for new opportunities or advancements in pain treatment, that's okay. But I will make sure I also have information on current events so I can keep up with polite dinner conversation.

I'll never get better, but I don't have to. I can do the best with what I've got left and make this look Awesome.

I lived for years without hope. Hope can be a liability when dealing with a chronic illness. I got tired of hoping this next drug would work only to be disappointed time and time again. My heart would break each and every time the treatment failed. It became too much.

So I said: Screw hope. I don't need it. I don't have to believe in these pills to make them work. It's not like in Peter Pan where I need happy thoughts to be able to fly. All I need is tenacity. All I need to do is not. give. up.*

And the strangest thing happened... I improved my situation anyway. No hope or happy thoughts required.

There's a story from WWII about the allied forces hearing that the Germans were taking no prisoners; they were just slaughtering everyone. The Germans believed this would have a demoralizing effect: taking all hope away. What soldier would want to fight if it was certain they were going to die? Why fight when there's no hope of a tomorrow?

It had the exact reverse effect. When the allies figured there was no way out, the muscled up. The Germans aren't taking survivors? Well, let's take out as many as we can because that's the best we can do. They fought like tigers.

I say, so what if the situation is hopeless? That just makes me standing up to it that much more awesome. Yeah, this disease is big, scary, and frequently totally overpowering. It sucks. It's unfair. It's only gonna get worse before it kills me. So what? No one gets out of this life alive... but I can face it with dignity until then.

"Our arrows will be so numerous they will block out the sun." - Persian emissary
"So much the better...then we shall fight our battle in the shade." - Dienekes, Spartan 
As recorded by Herodotus, Battle of Thermopylae, aka The Last Stand of the 500

P.S. I learned that you *can* give up, if only for a little while. I gave up for a few months here & there... but I would get tired of that, and eventually get back to researching, networking, reading, etc. And when I got back too it, I found all sorts of wonderful new discoveries in my absence. So don't feel bad if you have to give up for a while. You can't stay at the front all the time.


  1. This is awesome! I feel the same way. It's stupid to think that if we think happy thoughts, everything will magically get better. I agree that it's more important to accept reality, and that it's ok to give up for short periods of time, as long as it's all balanced. Well said!

    1. Thank you! Yeah, I don't know what it is about those folks who claim you *have* to have hope. They seem terrified if you're not hopeful, like life will suddenly stop. Nah... and I'd argue that it sucks less. Better than repeatedly heartbroken, in my book!