I was answering a survey about my illness the other day and was really stumped when I came across the question: “How have you benefited from your illness?” I was shocked by this question. The person conducting the survey has a chronic condition herself. Are there certain things that she’s happy about in regards to her illness? Do others feel this way? Am I missing something important? I struggled to come up with an answer and finally wrote this:
Being diagnosed and suffering with this illness has shown me how strong I can be. I have faced things that make others cringe. I have seen a look of such compassionate pity in my doctors’ eyes that scared me. With each appointment I am faced with a new complication, a new diagnosis, a new referral or specialist… But, despite all this, I have managed to achieve amazing things. I am in graduate school, despite my doctor telling me that I shouldn’t put that stress on my body. I missed classes my very first week due to a heart catheterization test. I have thrown up old blood one day and then gone to a final the next. I am still able to work in a physically taxing job. I have worked a full 8.5 hour shift and then gone directly to the ER. Dealing with this illness has shown me how STRONG I am. I know now that I am capable of handling these things with grace and integrity. I know that I won’t crawl into a depressed slump and let my life pass by when faced with harsh news (that’s not to say that it doesn’t still upset me). I am grateful to this illness for showing me how strong I am.
Writing this, however, I knew it was a lie. Yes, I am strong. Yes, I have achieved a lot. But how much more could I have done without the illness? I AM strong and what could that strength have gone to if I wasn’t always struggling just to hold myself together? How much happier would I be without the struggles and pain of my illness? As I wrote my answer, all these things went through my mind with the subheading of liar. So I added one last bit to my answer:
While the strength is nice and reassuring it can’t make up for what I deal with. This illness has taken so much from me. I would rather be weak and happy than strong and sad.
Knowing that I am strong enough to be able to work a long shift at work in severe pain, urinating brown urine, and then calmly taking myself to the ER doesn’t make me happy. It doesn’t change the fact that I’ve missed work due to tests and appointments or that I have been the subject of scorn and abuse from my coworkers for calling off so often. Being strong enough to take a final a day after throwing up blood and barely being able to get out of bed, doesn’t change the fact that I was in so much pain during that final that I could barely think straight and almost walked out of the test. The strength isn’t worth watching my dreams wash down the drain due to one bad semester (graduate school rarely has mercy). I’m not sure that I even view it as “strength” anymore. Being weak or strong isn’t going to change my illness. It’s not a trade-off: weak and healthy or strong and sick. At times I don’t even know what is strong and what is weak. Whether I am one or the other. In the end I am just trying to survive and live my life. Am I strong for simply surviving and going about my life as I would anyway? What other choice do I have?