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On Suffering and Chronic Illness

While I don’t like to be called a migraine sufferer, What Suffering Does, a NY Times op-ed by David Brooks, resonated deeply with my experience of chronic illness.

There’s the awareness that despite desperately wishing for things to change, illness is not an issue of mind over matter:

[S]uffering gives people a more accurate sense of their own limitations, what they can control and cannot control. When people are thrust down into these deeper zones, they are forced to confront the fact they can’t determine what goes on there. Try as they might, they just can’t tell themselves to stop feeling pain, or to stop missing the one who has died or gone.

The recognition that loss of control doesn’t have to equal helplessness and that we do have control over how we respond to strife:

They are not masters of the situation, but neither are they helpless. They can’t determine the course of their pain, but they can participate in responding to it. They often feel an overwhelming moral responsibility to respond well to it… placing the hard experiences in a moral context and trying to redeem something bad by turning it into something sacred.

“Moral responsibility” and “turning it into something sacred” sound like they’d require grand gestures that are beyond the ability of someone with a debilitating chronic illness, but many of us turn our suffering into something sacred in the everyday. We do it by keeping others in our thoughts or prayers, by not judging someone whose behavior is changed by illness, by reassuring the friend who is new to chronic illness that she’s doing everything right, by telling the person who pays for prescription drugs out-of-pocket about drug discount cards and prescription assistance programs, and in millions of other ways.

The line from the op-ed that most spoke to me was,

Recovering from suffering is not like recovering from a disease. Many people don’t come out healed; they come out different.

By definition, chronic illness is not something a person heals from, but it certainly changes everyone who lives with it. It’s up to each one of us to decide what that change will look like in our own lives. I will never say chronic illness is a gift, but I do like who I’ve become because of it.

3 Responses to On Suffering and Chronic Illness

  1. Melanie says:

    Kerrie– Saw a review of the book of essays, The Empathy Exams, that you may be interested in. Not sure if I’m in a place where I actually want to read the book, but the interview was thought provoking.
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/jaimegreen/its-always-spilling-over-the-edges

  2. Paula Dumas says:

    Kerrie – Love this article about suffering, especially your perspective: “I do like who I’ve become because of it.” I tire of seeing images of people in pain. I don’t want to suffer with migraines, but thrive despite migraines. In reality, everyone is suffering with something – be it physical, emotional, financial or relational. It’s how you respond to it that matters. Thanks for your insights!

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