Foot in Mouth Disease
One of the interesting “side effects” of living with a chronic illness, is learning to deal with oblivious comments. I call them “Foot in Mouth” disease.
Here’s my latest helpful moment:
My friend Deanna and I sat next to each other on a luscious, green lawn at our neighborhood park. We were listening to a local blues band play on a deep July evening. The sun, setting behind me, generated the perfect mix of skin caressed warmth and breezy shadows. We watched little kids dance like wobbly jumping beans in front of the stage. Adults drank wine and beer, pulled treats out of picnic baskets, and lounged into the lazy night. An elderly couple danced together next to the stage. I admired their affection until their hands reached for body parts best left to teenage PDA.
For the most part, I save my darkest whining and depression about my health to my husband and sister. But on that day, I decided to cross over my self-imposed line of emotional “light”, into a more vulnerable place and share what was really going on with me.
“I’ve been in a rough patch the last couple of weeks. Worse than usual, and I just can’t shake it,” I said.
“That sucks,” Deanna said, nodding her head in sympathy.
“Yeah, I’m trying to stay positive and not get sucked into depression, but when I have too many bad days in a row, it’s hard not to give into it.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean. Did you know I had MS?” she said, smiling in that super perky way.
“MS? I had no idea.” I instantly switched gears to jump in with all the empathy of someone who “Get’s chronic illness”.
“About fifteen years ago, I started having all these symptoms. I could barely walk. It was terrifying.”
“That’s awful,” I leaned towards her, shouting over the growing volume of the band, “My husband’s first wife died from MS you know.”
“Oh yeah, I’d forgotten that.” She paused a respectful moment, then added, “When I was sick, I found this amazing book that changed my life”.
“What was it?”
“The Secret to Healing Yourself,’ she said. “I learned that not embracing my illness was the key to curing MS, and once I stopped embracing it, my symptoms went away. I’ve been fine ever since.” Pride oozed out of her like she’d climbed Mt Everest. “Not that you’ve embraced it, of course,” she said.
My body tightened from my toes to my jaw. I felt my face twist and my sympathetic smile froze. But I turned on the laughter, acting like her words flowed by me with no damage. I turned back to the band letting the drum and bass fill me up, giving me a place to hold my anger. I wanted to shriek, “How dare you imply that my illness is something that I embrace and hold onto like a thick, smelly, quilted blanket, discovered in my grandmother’s attic!”
My default anger mode is to avoid confrontation, so I left the show, righteous and fuming. I recreated the scenario in excruciating detail over the next couple of days with the few people who do “Get It” receiving copious amounts of sympathy. I’m not proud of this. I cancelled a future social commitment with Deanna. I knew this wasn’t mature. I knew my friend just didn’t understand how hurtful those comments were to me.
I tried hard to be enlightened, and spent hours twisting the incident upside down, trying to understand why I held onto her words with such tenacity. If I’d been in therapy at the time, it would have cost me hundreds of dollars to sort it out. I even wrapped myself with New Age truisms like: “I don’t want toxic people in my life.” Or “I need to be around people who Get Me.” I even succumbed to writing pathetic songs with self-indulgent lyrics: “I won’t let the hard times get me down. I’ll rise up over the edge of my crushed spirit. I’ll light a candle in the dark, for me and me alone.” Thankfully, I spared myself horrific embarrassment and didn’t share them with anyone.
Then, a week later, came a breakthrough.
I FINALLY “Got It”! Deanna’s words were too familiar. They were my own! It was that insidious self-judging voice that I try to ignore, that sits in the deepest part of my consciousness, waiting to attack like a shrieking soul-wound. Ready to sideswipe my daily battles to stay in gratitude, a positive force no matter how I feel. They shout sticky, gooey, words, that hold me stiff, like half dried glue. A part of me does believe that I must be “embracing” my illness or I’d be fine by now.
My Righteousness slipped off me, like a loose shawl. Eureka! I’d finally figured it out. This wound was not Deanna’s to give me, but mine to give myself. Ahhh. Now peace would return. All I needed to do was EMBRACE my inner judge and it would have no power over me! I declared to everyone around me that I’d only write positive songs of joy and gratitude and love from now on. I knew, with absolute certainty, that now that I recognized my demon, the inner critic, it would have no power over me.
I sat down to write the masterpiece of my life. I could see the video going viral. “LET GO of the inner critic, and you’ll be HEALED!” I’d be a chronic illness GURU! Maybe a national book tour, an international band tour. I’d be an expert sitting in the chair next to Dr. Phil, Dr. Oz, or yes, even on THE VIEW!
My head spun with glee, with glory, with optimism.
Then I realized two things:
- I’ve had this “Embracing and Letting Go” realization before. Many, many times. Each time I thought it was brand new and would last forever, and each time I forgot about it in about two seconds.
- My friend isn’t the only one with Foot in Mouth disease.
The definition of “embrace” from Webster’s Dictionary says: A close encircling with the arms and pressure to the bosom, especially as a sign of affection. 2. Acceptance. So what does it mean for those of us with a chronic illness? Some days, I need my warrior self to fight like hell the physical and emotional challenges. But other days, I need to give myself permission to rest, to be sad, to hold myself gently and accept my limitations. Does that mean I embrace my disease? No. But I do embrace the complicated, confusing, challenging, funny, and sometimes even beautiful, journey that is uniquely mine.