Ahhh… it’s good to be back! Sorry for the hiatus! So, I thought we’d start again by talking about something that those of us who are ill can have both a surplus and a startling lack of, simultaneously. This is a thing we are often praised by others for having in spades, and something we often curse ourselves for not having enough of. This thing, it’s at the core of what being ill truly means, yet we often take having it or not having it for granted, or both! Have you figured it out yet? It’s strength.
Strength is a very fluid thing – it can ebb and flow like the tide, and everyone’s perspective on what constitutes having it or what illustrates the lack of it varies widely. I have chided myself many times for not having the grit to go through with a procedure without crying out or just plain crying – while others have told me that I showed great fortitude of character by even agreeing to undergo the procedure in the first place. I have had people tell me I was their hero, and I have had people tell me I was lucky I didn’t end up worse off. So, what constitutes this ethereal sentiment called strength?
I’ll tell you what I think, but before I do, let’s talk about what strength isn’t. That’s easier to nail down. Many people consider strength to be something that makes a man or a woman fearless in the face of danger – an ability to go through with anything without flinching or faltering for even one second. Me, I have a different definition for throwing caution to the wind like that, and diving in, devil may care attitude in hand. It’s called stupidity. Fear and apprehension are a good thing – they can make you stop and examine things, like if it’s really safe to swim with sharks when the guy who runs the tour is called “legless Pete.” Fear makes you pause and truly contemplate the consequences of your actions. This is never a bad thing, and only complete morons would disregard such a reasonable emotion. That’s why strength isn’t the lack of fear or dismissing danger out of hand. Strength is pushing ahead and holding on despite every fiber of your being quivering with panic and alarm. Strength is believing that what you’re doing is the right thing to do, despite all your inside voices screaming at you to run away. When the easy way out is simply to give up, and you double down – that’s strength.
Anyone who has been ill for any time at all has been in a situation where his or her strength was tested, a time when they were afraid. I’m talking about a fright that runs to the very core of your soul, the type of terror that makes you involuntarily inhale. I had a moment of pure dread such as this back in 2011 when I had pneumonia. I had just been admitted to the hospital, and because it was my first evening there, the night nurse wasn’t yet accustomed to the copious amounts of narcotic pain medication that I took. As anyone who takes pain medicine knows, nurses and doctors in the hospital who don’t know you well, bristle when they have to provide narcotics to a patient they’ve never met. So, this nurse assumed that I was like most people, and I could go one night without my opiates. I guess. Unfortunately, I wasn’t most people, and by the time I woke up the next morning at 10am, I was at least twelve hours without any pain meds at all. In short order, I was fighting for my life.
For those who don’t know, pneumonia is often associated with a condition called pleurisy, an inflammation of the tissue that connects your lungs to the chest wall. Pleurisy makes it extremely painful to breathe, and if I was just a normal person, it might have even been surmountable. Unfortunately, combined with the pain of withdrawal from a night of no narcotics, and the fact that pain feels worse when you first come off pain meds, the pain tripled and I began a life and death struggle simply to draw breath. It felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest, shooting fire from his trunk to burn me like hot acid each time my lungs expanded. After the first few gasps of blinding, white hot, flashing pain, the fear set in, and for the first time in my life I was unsure if I was going to see the end of a day. Knowing that you are fighting for your life results in a unique type of terror that is difficult to put into words. Not only was there panic, horror, and alarm, but there was also a voice that kept telling me “just let go,” and “relax, rest,” and that voice – a vocalization that amounted to a murderer’s siren call, was the most chilling part of all. Somehow I knew that if I didn’t concentrate with ever fiber of my being and pull every single molecule of air I could into my lungs, I was going to expire. No equivocating, no doubt, if I failed in the simple task of breathing that was my charge, it would be curtains for me, the end of the road. Now, if you can think of a fear that trumps the certainty of death, then my hat’s off to you, but as far as I’ve ever experienced, that was the most scared I’ve been, and I’ll never forget the feeling.
Of course, I held on long enough for the doctors to shoot me up five times with morphine until I passed out and they brought me to the ICU. As much as it makes me uncomfortable to say it about myself, that’s a situation from which I derive much of my definition of strength. At that moment, living became tenfold more difficult than the normal, everyday, struggle to survive, and despite the bone-chilling horror that my own brain was putting emotional leverage on me to simply give up, I pressed on, and survived. I wouldn’t wish the situation on a single person, but anyone who has had to deal with even one percent of the fear I felt that day, has strength beyond measure.
As I mentioned above, I hate to toot my own horn, especially when it comes to calling myself strong. After thanking them, I always tell people who compliment me on my fortitude that “you get used to it,” and that “there’s really no other choice.” Secretly, though, when I’m alone with myself at 2am, not only do I disbelieve those words, but I chide myself for not being strong enough. If I complained at all during the day, or snapped at Allison because I was hurting, or even winced too many times in pain that night getting undressed, I tell myself how much of a wimp I’m being and that little girls who have tea parties are stronger than I am, and why don’t I just put on a dress and join them. (That’s also how a dream I have begins – but that’s another column.) So, there I am, with a surplus and a shortage of strength, all at once.
Even in the simple act of authoring this column, I have begun to doubt the strength I may or may not have. Those of us who are ill are almost always our own harshest critics, but I’m here to tell you something that I tell myself all the time. If you are alive and reading these words, well, then, YOU ARE STRONG. Getting out of bed in the morning and simply living is difficult, and making it to bed each night, however you do it, is something to be proud of. Living with chronic disease is an eternal battle of wits and test of strength, and each time you beat that little voice that tells you to give up, you become a little bit stronger.