Wednesday, May 14, 2014

The Loneliness of Illness and Pain

This is one of the best blog articles on #chronicillness I have seen in a long time. Written by Wayne Connell, Founder and President of the Invisible Disabilities Association (IDA), it starts out with phrases commonly heard by folks who are disabled when others find out about their status: “You’re lucky you don’t have to work!” “You’re just giving up!” “You need to get out more!” Things that still make me wince just to read them. Things that still very much hurt my feelings when I hear them today, even though I know them to be patently false. But that's never stopped anyone from saying them.

Wayne continues with a hypothetical situation asking people which is better for a broken leg or surgery: a going on a hiking trip, or using crutches & rest? It may seem obvious what the answer is, especially based on our own behavior: rest and crutches are the better idea. Otherwise, as Wayne explains, there would be mountain trails outside of hospital rooms instead of wheelchairs & gurneys. "When dealing with a broken leg, it [usually] heals and the person returns to life as usual." (Read the rest of the article here:

But people who have an illness that hasn't healed, that can't heal, who are in the very throws of illness at this very moment are treated as if they're not sick at all.

On the other hand, for many living with ongoing illnesses, “as the illness progresses, [people] must adjust each day to the disease, sometimes severe, sometimes in remission, and always present. The sense of health and vibrancy is, at best, diminished, and at worst, lost,” wrote Jackson P. Rainer, Ph.D., a leading authority on grief and loss.

Another thing people think is that because we the patient are still having daily issues, that means that we haven't been about to "move on." Their thought is, "Wow, you have that and you're still alive? That's amazing. Don't you see how that's amazing? When you talk about your illness, you're right... but the only person you're hurting is you. I'm just so glad you're alive and I think we should focus on that. You just have to believe you can get better! You know just because you get a diagnosis doesn't mean it's a death sentence. You shouldn't believe everything your doctor tells you. I believe you can beat this!"

And when you try to explain that they've misunderstood what's going on, it only sounds like an excuse. They, of course, can see that you're still unhappy, but they've now convinced themselves that the reason for your unhappiness is a consequence of your own stubbornness. They then have a perfect justification for stepping back, or walking away, guilt free. We're only doing to ourselves, right?

They can't imagine a world where you get sick and it never goes away. They can't imagine not having control over simple things like going to the bathroom. After all, they mastered that as toddlers. Adults don't have those problems until they're old and decrepit anyway, and by that time, who cares? They fast forward through all those medication ads. They know we have hundreds of drugs to treat the same thing and even drugs built just for his pleasure. We're in the golden age of pharmacology!

Every medical riddle has an answer and a treatment that solves the problem---I watch House! The only people who keep having problems with their disease are people who aren't following their doctor's instructions and doing all they can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle! I don't need to feel upset about this at all. God is in heaven, and all is right with the world. Look at all these people who work hard and beat cancer!*

They can't imagine how little medical science actually knows. They can't imagine that their doctors probably have never had a class on pain; the chief medical complaint everywhere, always. They can't imagine there are symptoms for which we have no good treatment, no good source of relief for patients at all. They can't imagine that you could have possibly exhausted all options available. There aren't people in wards waiting for the medical breakthrough that will save their lives. We're past that!

Oh, but we aren't.

And what they cannot imagine is that our problems today might actually be problems from our success! Yes, we're not dead. But achieving that can leave us more scarred and more crippled than before our near-death experience. My experience with MRSA is a perfect example:

I got a surgery to end the 4.5 year migraine. That surgery caused an antibiotic-resistant version of staph to infect my face. I lost a good portion of the skin off my chin and on spots around my face. I still have the scars, some of them show up as white dots on my face. My chin is covered in tiny scars and it feels funny when you rub your hand over it.

That infection nearly killed me. The antibiotic left my veins so inflamed that they almost had to put a line into my heart to continue to deliver the antibiotic to me. That inflammation destroyed the small fibrous nerves that exist throughout my body. Anywhere the antibiotic touched, it burned. It burned the infection out of my system, and it burned everything else, and especially those delicate little nerves. Those don't grow back no matter how much yoga you do.

What fixed the migraines only moved the pain to other parts of my body (most conspicuously, my hands and feet) and left me crippled for another 5.5 years while we figured that one out.

Now that we've figured it out and have it manageable to a reasonable degree, an entirely unforeseen development has occurred, with no known source. It is not connected to anything that we already know of, because this wasn't in the forecast! And since we don't know the source, I can do nothing to stem the tide. I must now return to my doctors to start the investigative diagnosis process all over again.

It's very much like people's misconceptions about cancer, as I *'ed before... I'll leave it to XKCD to explain this one, as they did it best. (Used with permission.)

When we complain, we're not complaining because our illness is something in the past that we keep dragging into the present. No. For so many, it's something that's right here, right now. Not every symptom in the world is controlled, and as you can probably tell from some of those ads, many cause side-effects as bad as, if not worse than, the condition they're trying to treat! So if someone has to go to those lengths do try and manage what they have going on, don'cha think it might be... Oh, I don't know... Serious?

This is not to badmouth the people who really do mean well. However, those people are generally easy to spot. They say things like, "Wow, I didn't really consider that. This is new information for me so when you put it like that... You've given me a lot to think about, I'll have to take time to mull this over." Or even, "I really am trying to help, but this isn't easy so I don't have any quick answers for you." These are all reasonable answers. I already knew we were playing "Life" on "Level: Advanced" and my medical doctors are already at their limits, so I can accept that.

So please, if you hear that someone has gotten sick and can't get better, try blaming the disease and supporting the patient, rather than blaming the patient and supporting the dis-ease. We will be eternally grateful, even if you don't have any answers for us besides, "Man, F*** your disease." Profound respect for what we're going through is worth so much, that sometimes that expression of sympathy alone is enough to make us feel better.

Thank you for understanding.

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