Bit of a ranty blog post this week, based on some things I've been reading on social media and general societal beliefs. Warning for discussions of terminal illness and death behind the cut, as well as why I don't think you can fight your way to wellness.
Part of being human is dealing with things that are trying to kill us. Sharks and lightning strikes aside, that means that at some point most people - if not everyone - will get sick. We usually think of illness as something that is acute, but what happens when something happens that lingers, that feels like a threat to our very existence, or that we're told isn't going to go away? How do we cope then?
Very often, we cope by deciding to fight. It sounds simple, a resolution to keep on pushing against whatever it is that feels threatening, but as far as I've been able to tell it really doesn't work like that. In this blog post we're going to talk about why, and what we might be able to do instead.
"Fighting" illness sounds like the right thing to do, on the surface of it. It's deceptively simple, the idea that when it comes to our bodies we are in control of what happens, and that we can choose to stand up and say "no!" to illness and pain. We like to believe that we are in control of what happens next. We want to be in control of everything. We're not.
There's a lot of pain around terminal illnesses. Aside from diagnosis, and treatment, and conversations with loved ones around what might happen in the future, there's a pervasive message from society that bad things shouldn't happen to good people. That if you try hard, you'll succeed. That you just need to be better, and you'll be better. The problem with that is, illnesses don't care about the state of your soul. They don't care that you're a good person. They're just doing their thing, and sometimes that prevents you from doing yours.
What does it mean when you decide to "fight" and you don't manage to become well again? What does it mean when you die? Were you not strong enough, not brave enough, just not trying hard enough to fight? Did you not want to live to see your grandchildren grow up? Did you just not care enough to try? Very quickly, the mindset of "fighting" becomes one of "defeat" when someone cannot fight in the correct, socially-sanctioned way. And that's dangerous.
What does it mean when you have a chronic illness - nothing dangerous, nothing life-threatening, but causing a lot of pain or fatigue nevertheless? How do you "fight" something that punishes you with increasing symptoms whenever you decide not to listen to it? You can absolutely rail against it, decide "not to let it beat me," but ultimately you're fighting your own nervous system. There are no winners or losers when you're fighting your own body - sooner or later, you'll be able to do what you want to do. Sooner or later, you won't.
This probably sounds a bit wishy-washy, and possibly a bit irritating if it's important to you to believe that you have control over your body in any meaningful way. And of course, there are lots of things in life that you do have control over. For example, if you have an illness that is life-threatening, terminal, or unpleasant, you can:
By giving people the message that you can fight your way to wellness, we're keeping them trapped in a war with no end, a war against their own bodies that nobody can ever truly win. Surely, acceptance of that fact has to be better than continuing to ride into a doomed battle? And as you can see from the list above, acceptance never means "giving up" (staying in bed all day and becoming physically incapacitated). Acceptance of the things we can't control gives us a chance to focus on the things we can - and by focusing on those, we can start to improve our lives in small ways. And for me, that's definitely worth doing.
Let me know what you think in the comments.
Dr Sarah Blackshaw: Clinical Psychologist, blogger, tea drinker, interested in dinosaurs and shiny objects