—- Cat Charissage, 2014
My arthritis is getting worse. It impacts my daily life in a hundred and one ways: picking up a large class of lemonade hurts because it stresses the base of my thumb. It hurts when I pick up my journal with one hand, again because it stresses the base of my thumb. I think 10 times before I figure I REALLY need to go downstairs to get something, because the stairs hurt my knees. I almost drop the frying pan when trying to pick it up with one hand. I’m awakened 8-15 times a night when I move into a position that my shoulders, or back, or hands can’t tolerate for more than a few moments. Grabbing the seat belt to pull around myself hurts because I have to twist shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints into unusual positions.
I have excellent medical care, and I employ various alternative healing modalities. I do what I can, and it certainly helps. I might very well be crippled and immobile were I not able to access this medical and self care. I’m profoundly grateful for that, and for the generous benefits from my spouse’s work which pay for most of the hundreds of dollars of medicine, therapies, etc.
But this post isn’t about just my situation. Many people fall off the radar of visibility when they deal with health issues or family challenges and disabilities that don’t go away. Day in, day out, 24/7/365, we all “manage.” But HOW? And how can we do so graciously?
What does one do when you’re already doing all that you can, yet the problem isn’t fixed? My Western, middle class, educated culture is literally fueled by attitudes of “We will conquer this!” “Proper planning prevents piss-poor performance!” “Quit worshipping at the church of St. Mattress and make it happen!” When it comes to medical problems the attitudes are “Don’t give up! You can beat this!” “There’s got to be something. . ., how about a new drug trial? ” “Have you tried. . . ?” “I was just checking on Google and there’s this new. . . .” We carry these attitudes not only because we’ve been steeped in their cultural stew, but because they’ve worked. They get us moving and trying and persevering, and they get us success.
When should one switch from trying to find one more therapy, one more drug, vitamin, or lifestyle change, to living with, creating new ways to live productively and happily, and somehow giving up the dreams of how one thought life was going to be? When we turn to these new tasks (I think the psychologists call this part “Acceptance”) we still have loved ones, and an overriding cultural imperative, saying “Don’t give in! Never give up! Hope for the cure!” Friends start wondering what we’re repressing that keeps our challenges unchanged in their chronicity. Other friends wonder why we just don’t try whatever new therapy or snake oil they’ve just discovered, and therefore just get better. They sometimes secretly (or not so secretly) wonder if we really want to get better. Because there’s GOT to be a solution, hasn’t there?
Sometimes, there just isn’t. This is hard for all of us, “sufferers” and loved ones alike.
When I used to work at the sexual assault center, I was baffled at how otherwise wise and compassionate people could still believe, deep down, the myths that she really must have wanted it, or led him along, or that rape is an understandable and even somewhat acceptable response to a girl’s or a woman’s poor judgement regarding clothing or acquaintances. Then I began to understand: a person tells themselves, “if I can identify just what causes sexual violence, then I can simply avoid those causes, and I’ll be SAFE. Problem solved.” By apportioning blame, or finding causes, we think that we can get through life unscathed. Problems prevented. Or, if we can just find “THE” cure for post traumatic stress disorder, then even IF something bad happens, then, problem will be solved.
I think the same dynamic can apply when well meaning friends exhort those of us facing chronic challenges to “Reach for the cure!” or spend even more hours googling new snake oil or new meds (sometimes the same thing). And of course, we “sufferers” tell this to ourselves, too. I’m not discounting the genuine care our friends have toward us, which I have certainly felt deeply and gratefully. But just as it’s only human to deny our own mortality, it’s only human to deny our own vulnerability, too.
Life is complex. Shit happens. How can we make it into compost, to assist us all in growing our capacity to bear witness, with compassion, to the suffering around and within us?