Chronic Calls I: Bearing witness with compassion


IMG_0785 —crumpled tissue with acrylic paint,

—-  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?

7 thoughts on “Chronic Calls I: Bearing witness with compassion

  1. Grace Huszar

    Hi Cat,
    Great post. Reminded me a lot of what my family experienced when my brother developed schizophrenia. It was very clear to me that many people took comfort in assigning blame to the family. I’m pretty sure one councilor was going on the schizophrenogenic family theory, and, to be fair, my mom did own her own business and my dad did more housework than a “normal” man would do, so, it’s a wonder I didn’t also develop a devastating mental illness. When we are faced with really scary stuff we want to, at least, take away the element of randomness, so we can feel safe. Heck, I even remember similar thinking when the Hungarians found mice in their storage room, and the landlords tried to say that mice couldn’t possibly be anywhere else in the building (because mice are only attracted to spices stored in the basement.) But, in the area of mental illness, at least, there is encouraging shift in thinking, not totally, but in the right direction.

  2. Flamingo Gypsy Mama Susan Daniel

    DEAR! Cat~ I do not suffer from arthritis and yet in reading your blogpost I could almost feel your pain increasing. I wanted to shout, “Whoa Nellie” and stop that horse that was bucking underneath you and taking you riding at breakneck speed through this desert of pain and into the forest with all the prickly pine needles that keep jabbing their pain into your hands. I didn’t wanna see that mad, wild horse dump you into the thorns on the rose bushes in your beautiful garden. Sigh…. I wish I had a magic wand of one of those Mr. Clean sponges~ anything that could magical erase your pain from you. This is a powerful piece you have written. Thank you, Cat for exposing your vulnerable part and saying how much your pain hurts and how it only gives you the screaming meemies for your friends, strangers and acquaintances to say “If you only try this/that/the other and hold your mouth just right and howl at the moon while turning reverse circles underneath the rising new moon > THEN you would feel all more better! Not! Sooooo~ is it okay if I just sit beside you and be with you while you try to get the lid off this jar of pickles?

    1. mysteriesunfolding Post author

      Hello dear Flamingo Gypsy! YES, just sit beside me and be with me. That is best of all. Your imagery of Mr. Clean sponges is a good one: I use something like that in some of my imagery in meditation, and it helps. Thank you for commenting. I so appreciate you in my life. Cat

  3. Brenda Boswell

    Dear Cat: I appreciate your analysis with the victims of sexual assault. Only someone who has led your life can really appreciate and understand those two perspectives. Sending you very gentle hugs. Brenda

    1. mysteriesunfolding Post author

      Brenda. so glad you commented! Thank you. Yes, GENTLE hugs. . . I hope you are doing well. Or, as well as possible, my new phrase for challenging situations. I often think of you and my days in London; it’s been really good reflecting back on all those experiences and wringing wisdom out of them. Cat

  4. Carol

    Cat, as I read your post, it was as if you were echoing my very words! I have all of those difficulties as well, picking up things, grabbing a seat belt and the many time si have to get up at night to rub something on my shoulder or hands as they are so painful. It was truly heartening to read our remarks and not feel so alone with the arthritis. There are a number of things I do, medical and spiritual that help, and I too, am grateful for the medical care I receive. Being quite some years older than you, I am determined to make the best of it, there are still so many wonderful things to see, do, watch, write, paint, etc. Thank you for making me feel good! Take care… Hugs and sunshine, Carol

    1. mysteriesunfolding Post author

      Thanks, Carol.
      Yes, I am determined to make the best of it, too. We should talk sometime, and compare notes on things that help. One of the things that keeps me going is that almost all of the things I really love to do most, I can still do (though maybe not all of them on the same day!). Cat


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