“Who is that in the mirror? It certainly isn’t me. I don’t have that many gray hairs, and I definitely have more hair than that. Also, that guy needs to shave his ears. Heh, that man is old, that can’t be me.”
God, how I wish that person in the mirror wasn’t actually me, but it is. Aging, what a party that is, huh? When you are young, the world is bright and shiny, and you have no fear. You feel like you could summit Mount Everest while stark naked, or taunt the local police and run away before they catch you. Even with rheumatoid arthritis, I never really believed that my illness could have stopped me if I truly had the willpower to power through. That’s the gift and the curse of youth, though – you have the ability to do amazing things for the future, but you lack the desire to do them.
The perspective of youth is one of optimism – you look up and see the heights to which you can climb. Then, it happens. On one unassuming day, you suddenly realize you aren’t looking up as much as you used to, but, instead, you are spending more and more time trying not to look down. That’s when you truly realize just how terrified you are of the heights to which you’ve climbed. Not because you are afraid of falling, mind you, but because you begin to worry that the path you’ve chosen might not go all the way to that summit you viewed with starry-eyed optimism oh so many years before.
It’s a frightening realization, and many of us hit this roadblock sometime in our mid-to-late thirties. Those of us who suffer from chronic illness have even more reason to fear not reaching the top of that mountain we so surely set as our goal. As anyone with autoimmune disease can tell you, even though our numerical age might be equivalent to that of a healthy person, the actual, physical age of our bodies is frequently much more advanced, or, at least, that’s how it feels. Getting up each and every day with pain, having phantom aches appear and disappear, getting tired just walking up the stairs – these are all symptoms my grandfather used to complain of, and maladies I can definitely sympathize with. It is a battle that we fight each and every day, and the mental component is sometimes the hardest to overcome. Depression often goes hand-in-hand with chronic pain and illness, and I don’t think anyone can fault us for suffering from hopelessness and a feeling of being overwhelmed from time to time. It’s only natural.
I have a secret weapon, though, and, today, I’m going to share it with you. It is something that I’ve discovered over the last five years or so, and it is one of the best ways to fend off those days when it feels like the walls of this horrid life are caving in and you might be crushed by the drudgery of a life without excitement or value. So, if you are ready, I will give you the key to unlock the cell we put ourselves in. So, without further ado, here it is: You’ve already achieved the most difficult goal you’ve ever attempted to reach – you have survived.
That’s it. Simple, yes, but also something I think people like us tend to very often forget. Even if you have only been ill for a short time, there is nothing more physically testing or mentally trying than suffering from a chronic disease. You have to wake up each and every day with pain that no one can understand, and you have to come to terms mentally with the fact that it won’t ever end. That’s a summit ten times as high as Mount Everest, as far as I’m concerned.
Now, you may think you are a pessimist, or you may believe that your illness prevents you from doing whatever it is that you desire more than anything else, but just stop for a minute and take stock of what exactly it is you do every day when you wake up. You try to live your life as a normal human being, or as close to it as possible, and it is a chore – a fight each and every day to achieve a simple goal that many healthy people simply take for granted. So, with that in mind, how difficult can it be to write a book, run a race, paint a picture, or get your dream job? Is it harder than undergoing hours of painful surgery and suffering through a six-month recovery period? Doubtful. Is it more mentally devastating than dealing with slews of significant others who just aren’t mentally equipped to deal with someone who is ill? No way. Is it more infuriating than fighting with the jackass who thinks you’ve illicitly parked in the handicapped spot simply because you “look fine?” Never. So what is it that’s stopping you?
Yes, we are old, and we probably age faster than most healthy people. Yes, we hurt and we suffer mental anguish each and every day. Fortunately, though, we have developed or will develop the tools to deal with these situations much sooner than most “normal” people, and, thus, have a much easier time dealing with what I consider to be the lesser problems in this life. Think about it, if you have to wake up every day wondering if you will be able to walk, then torturing yourself over getting that raise seems a bit ridiculous, doesn’t it? Like I always tell Allison, don’t sweat the small stuff, and even if things don’t work out, we will deal with them.
So, when you look in that mirror and you see more and more grey hairs, or less and less smooth skin, don’t look at it as aging. When you see those blemishes, tell yourself that with every new crow’s foot or bald spot, there comes a whole new set of tools to deal with whatever this life is going to throw at you. As any mechanic can tell you, the more tools you have, the easier it is to find the right tool for the right job.