“Cancer, you are going to lose and we are going to win,” declares a commercial for a prominent cancer hospital. The message personifies the illness, lists all the losses (relatives and hair) and a face then declares: “I won’t let you.” The cancer is cast in a fraught adversarial relationship. Often illness feels like an epic struggle with life and death at stake. It is one. We are embattled.
Treating illness as an enemy does not work. With acute conditions like cancer or a tumor that require surgical intervention, no question, that is an assault on the body. And so maybe the metaphor of war is helpful to garner strength against that violence.
Consider the words we use around health: Do painkillers “kill” pain? Do we “beat” depression like a dirty rug or a drum? When you hire a surgical team is that “bringing on the calvary?” Have you ever assured someone who is ill, “You’re going to overcome this!” Or encouraged them to “to conquer it and never surrender?” Or called them a warrior?
After living 17 years with my condition, I know the ubiquitous images of war are not helpful. Why does the language of war and violence not work for a chronic illness?
- There’s no winning this “battle” or “war.” The illness is not going to go away. The definition of chronic illness is that it doesn’t get cured. There is no triumph. No victory. And there are varying degrees of treatment or no effective treatment. When I first got sick, I was so naive about illness that I didn’t know there was a difference between a treatment and a cure. I thought the hard part was figuring out what I had, so I could take “the” pill and get my life back. Which brings us to the second reason:
- Chronic illness is never simple. The symptoms are ever changing. They are like a hydra regenerating as quickly as you can deal with them. Their mercurial nature adds to the mystery. Chronic illness is not like a war with two clear sides. In fact, it’s more like terrorism because you never know when you’re going to get hit. And it’s easy to slide into a state of constant fear and readiness. That’s exhausting and not at all conducive to living well.
- You feel like you’re fighting yourself. At least I do, because it’s so much an integral part of me. And because you never “win,” it’s just another reason to think of yourself as a loser. You lose because you have not figured it out or because you don’t have the strength to “defeat” it. In this way, especially, the language of violence is particularly pernicious because you end up treating yourself like the enemy.
So what does work?
With a chronic illness, you have to adapt your life and adapt your thinking. The crux of that is viewing the illness not as an obstacle that needs to be overcome or as an affliction that needs to be fought. I treat my illness like a dance partner, albeit one that doesn’t always move to my preferred music selection.
In Yang Liu’s fascinating graphic book East meets West, there’s a terrific illustration of the different way western and eastern cultures deal with obstacles. (see page entitled Dealing with Problems) In the west, the footprints are drawn walking right over the problem. In east, the footprints walk around the problem. Which is better or worse?
It depends on the problem. At the beginning, I leaned toward figuring out how to walk around it. Because you can not walk over chronic illness and stomp it out. We’re not strong enough to barrel on through. Plus, the obstacle is impenetrable. So going around seemed the only option. The problem with that was the obstacle would shift and still block my way.
So over time I have embraced a third way. If the west stomps over it (conquering it) and the east walks around it (avoiding it), my integrated solution is to dance with my illness. To keep my balance when I am in a yoga handstand or headstand, I am in a dance with gravity. As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I have learned to respond with skill and nimbleness to the force of gravity as it moves through my body so I don’t fall.
My illness is a force no less powerful than gravity. Fighting gravity is futile too. Avoiding gravity doesn’t work either.
So, just as yoga has taught me to dance with gravity, I have figured out how dance with my illness. As a former dancer, I deploy my discipline to learning how to dance with more grace, responsiveness and generosity. It is possible to develop better skills and to learn how to live with chronic illness. Over time, my dancing has evolved, and I live with my condition with agility, ingenuity and resilience.
It’s not easy. Louisa May Alcott wrote, “I am not afraid of storms, for I am learning how to sail my ship.” (Little Women, New York, Signet Classic, 18th ed., Chapter 44) I am still learning. And frankly, I can still forget what I know when in a storm. I forget how to dance.
In her second memoir, The Spiral Staircase - My Climb Out of Darkness, Karen Armstrong describes her struggle with epilepsy: “I toiled round and round in pointless circles, covering the same ground, repeating the same mistakes.” (page xx) Inspired by T.S. Elliot’s poem Ash Wednesday, she frames her story as a spiral staircase. We all do this.
So after nearly two decades, my dance with illness is not on a flat surface, but rather I move forward by ascending a spiral staircase. Like Fred Astair, I may dance up and down the steps. But I am doing it and getting better at it all the time, mostly ascending, often descending, but learning and remembering.
I am not afraid of “losing” or being exhausted by a “fight.” And I don’t treat my body as the enemy. I am not in a constant state of siege. Living with a chronic condition requires immense courage and creativity. I honor that.
How do you talk about your chronic illness? What works for you? What images or metaphors help? Share in the comments.
Cassandra Marcella Metzger, JD, MA, RYT is the creator and founder of Wellspring Stones - the online oasis for those living with illness. After she struggled to find accessible and applicable help on how to live well with illness, she decided to prove that living well while ill wasn’t an oxymoron. She designed the 21 Day Wellspring Stones Celebration to inspire you to start taking small and strategic steps towards living easier and to mark the official launch of Wellspring Stones in August 2016. The fun starts July 26, 2016. Find out more here.
This essay has been revised from an earlier version. July 21, 2016