“When you are ill or disabled, do not feel that you have failed in some way, do not feel guilty. Do not blame life for treating you unfairly, but do not blame yourself either.” –Eckhart Tolle, The Power of Now (218)
For the past few weeks I’ve been reading bits and pieces of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. I appreciate the ways in which he brings together anecdotes and parables from various religious and philosophical traditions in order to illustrate his arguments about surrender and presence. I suspect this is why his books have been so popular, and why he received the ringing endorsement of someone like Oprah. For the most part, he also manages to stay away from the sort of woo-woo, new age-y stuff that reaks of pseudoscience.
I will be the first person to agree that pain and suffering are separate but related phenomena, and that the stories we tell ourselves about pain (physical, mental, or emotional) amplify our pain and lead to suffering. I also recognize that one of the only ways to short circuit this process of amplification is to try to be mindfully present at all times. For me, the best way to manage the physical pain of autoimmune disease is by staying fully present with that pain as it is– not the story of how the pain is like or unlike other pain, not the story of how the pain is never going to stop, or is only going to get worse, or how my life would be so much better without it, and definitely not the story of how the pain is the single most defining characteristic of my life. It’s taken me a long time to get to that point, to accept that the things my ego wants (“identify with the pain!” “be a victim!”) work against my chances for finding a lasting sense of peace and contentment.
So why am I left with a bad taste lingering in my mouth?
First, it’s all well and good to stop identifying with pain, but what happens when that pain is caused by circumstances that could be changed, either right now or in order to benefit someone else in the future? I think about the battles those of us involved in patient advocacy fight every day: better access to healthcare and prescription drugs, more research on rare and chronic diseases, appropriate compensation and benefits for doctors who go into unpopular specialties like rheumatology. Individually, we do not have the power to make the systemic changes that would improve the lives of patients. But collectively, we can fight those battles by telling our stories to people who do have the power to make changes: elected officials, scientists, researchers, insurance companies, and clinicians. How do we tell the story of our pain–and yes, suffering–without identifying with it? How do we use the power of our individual and collective narratives without become overwhelmed by them? Where is the self-help book to teach me about that?
More importantly, whether it’s Tolle, or someone like Lynn Grabhorn, many of the teachings that seek to lead people away from suffering fail to take into account the very real physical pain of chronic illness. Despite statements like the quote from Tolle that I open with above, many authors who write about mindfulness and the alleviation of suffering have accepted and re-purposed subtle and not-so-subtle cultural and religious messages about chronic illness in their work. They say that people “attract” illness to themselves; that illness is the natural outcome of negative feelings; that we need to try harder at being more present, more aware, more at peace, and then our illnesses will go away because they’ve taught us the “lesson” they were there to teach us. I am always shocked when I see these messages, sometimes subtle or implicit, sometime overt, mixed in with what is otherwise very helpful advice. Certainly, it’s more likely that someone will get sick with a cold or minor infection when they scrimp on sleep and eat a diet lacking in necessary nutrients (often as a result of “stress”). But that kind of “sick” is very different from cancer or autoimmune or genetic disease. And it tells me that these authors–like many physicians– have never had to deal with a persistent chronic condition, and find it difficult or even frightening to empathize with someone who has. Are we really still retracing the steps of the disproved “Cancer Personality” hypothesis or the “repressed anger” stereotype of the “Rheumatoid Arthritis Personality”?
I guess it just comes down to “take what you need and leave the rest.” I shouldn’t expect people to “get it,” even if they seem otherwise enlightened. In the meantime, if anyone is interested in an excellent book about mindfulness and chronic illness, I highly recommend How to Be Sick by Toni Bernhard.
As you may have noticed, I haven’t posted in a while. Mostly I’ve just been busy—working, teaching, writing my dissertation, and trying to having something of a social life. Basically I’ve been playing at being a normal person. And I did a pretty good job at it, too. This weekend though, all the small complaints that I had been collecting over the past few weeks (feet too sore to wear heels, intense morning stiffness, knee pain, fatigue, photosensitivity, GI issues) seemed to snowball together, and now I’m lying on the couch feeling sorry for myself. I like to think I’m getting better at not blaming myself and riding the wave of flare and remission, but it’s still really hard. Sometimes I feel like as soon as I get everything under control and establish a routine, something new pops up to wipe me out again.
Between the Arava and inflammation I’ve lost more than 10 pounds since August, despite still being on a low-moderate dose of prednisone. While for many people that would be a victory, for me it isn’t—I’m already at the low end of normal BMI. The GI symptoms I’ve had recently, which may or may not be from the Arava, have not helped either. I’ve been tracking my stress levels and watching the foods I eat, cutting out wheat and dairy, but it just seems to be totally random and unpredictable. I’d like to exercise too, but I don’t have the energy (yes, that old chestnut). And it’s hard for me to take the compliment when people tell me how good I look, since I feel so unwell and unfit inside. I suppose I should be pleased that my make-up skills are good enough that I don’t look like death warmed over.
All this makes it sound terrible to be me, but that isn’t really the case. I’m just frustrated with my body. I really am grateful and content most of the time. I have lots of love in my life and people who are looking out for me; I have a job that I find satisfying and fulfilling; I have my academic work—which I love, even if academia makes me a little crazy sometimes; I’m financially stable and I have decent health insurance, though I often have to fight to get what I need; and I have various volunteer and social commitments that keep me engaged in my community when I’m able. It’s a good life, even if it’s not the one I thought I was going to have.
“Be Kind; Everyone You Meet is Fighting a Hard Battle”
I’ve seen this quote in multiple versions, with several different attributions. It often seems to get attributed to Plato, but it sounds a little too touchy-feely to have come from him. I did a bit of investigating and it seems that the quote has gone through quite a few variations, but likely originated with a nineteenth-century Scottish theologian named John Watson (psuedonym “Ian McClaren”).
Regardless of the origin of the quotation, is one of those sayings that helps me keep my patience when I find myself becoming frustrated with other people. If I have my battle with chronic illness—which so often remains invisible to others, sometimes intentionally on my part—then how many other people have their own invisible battles with trauma, abuse, mental illness, physical illness, etc? Every time I start to feel like someone is attacking me, or snubbing me, or ignoring me, I ask myself, “What’s going on in her life that might be affecting our relationship?” It’s so easy to jump to the conclusion that someone is attacking us out of spite, because they want to hurt us. In reality, it’s likely that they are so caught up in their own battles that they don’t realize how their actions affect those around them. It takes practice, but it is so much easier to react with kindness instead of bitterness. Suddenly some of the paranoia that comes from living in a hostile world just falls away. Most people are too caught up in their own heads to make the effort to hurt anyone. Give them the benefit of the doubt.
So, methotrexate and I broke up last week. During the past two-to-three weeks I’ve been having a major flare of skin and joint involvement and my rheumy and I decided we needed a different strategy. Of course, my labs are still somewhat (totally?) incoherent, so the strategy is “dampen the inflammation with low-dose prednisone and NSAIDs and see what develops.” So no more needles (for now), no more weekend-long MTX hangovers, no more collapsing into bed at 7pm, and no more disgusting cherry cough syrup (to fight MTX brain fog). I feel like a human being again. A human being whose feet and hands have returned almost to their normal size. Of course that’s probably just the prednisone talking, but I’m so excited to feel like myself again that I’m willing to take whatever I can get.
I know all about the downsides of long-term use of corticosteroids—osteoporosis, elevated blood sugar and diabetes, glaucoma, etc—so I’m hoping we can find a better [biologic?] solution for my situation. In the meantime, though, I’m beginning to find my way into a quality-of-life balance. Sure, the MTX might be safer in the long run, but what good is it if the side effects are totally disabling and it’s only partially controlling my disease? Is it better to be on MTX and be unable to exercise due to fatigue than to be on prednisone and have the energy for moderate physical activities? Which is better or worse for my heart, my lungs, my brain, my soul?
I’ve always been a planner—I like to joke that I have a back-up plan and a back-up-back-up plan for my Plan B—but sometimes I simply have to ask myself “what do I need to function (and even enjoy myself) right now?” Because right now is the only guarantee. I gave MTX 4 months of my life and I’ll never get them back. It was worth the gamble, since it could have been a miracle drug for me, but it wasn’t. Next!
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” —Victor Frankl
I’m not sure what has changed in the past few days, but I feel like I’ve gone from a mental space of worry to one of relative peacefulness and acceptance. It doesn’t feel like anything has changed inside of me; in fact, I feel just as lousy as I did last week—the usual MTX gripes and joint pain along with a bonus infection. But something has definitely shifted.