A year ago today, I wrote this post to mark the official publication date of my first book, Life Disrupted. I talked about blogging, writing, and storytelling, and the power of narrative and the responsibility that comes with writing other people’s stories.
In the year since the book published, I’ve learned a lot, from how to pace book readings and radio interviews to how to switch gears from asking the questions and writing the material to being on the other side of the story. I’ve had the chance to connect with readers in person and online, and I’ve been fortunate to hear their stories. On the one hand, I’ve been particularly surprised by how many people with rare diseases I’ve heard from, yet perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that. I’ve said it before, but I really do believe the universals of living with illness outweigh disease-specific symptoms: denial, acceptance, disclosure, survival, guilt, vulnerability, etc.
(Interestingly enough, one specific thing in the book that resonated with a lot of readers was the infamous “honey mustard incident”—I guess reaching our own personal breaking points, even if the trigger itself is inconsequential, also defies diagnosis or length of illness.)
This notion of community or belonging is something that’s been on my mind a lot lately, both in terms of what I do here on this blog and in a much broader sense of the chronic illness population. I don’t consider this a celiac blog or a rare disease blog or a PCD blog but I write about issues related to living with those conditions when appropriate. It’s not a chronic pain blog per se, or an autoimmune disease blog, or an infertility blog, but again, when those topics are relevant to my life or readers’ lives, I write. I like writing about policy—and right now, there’s plenty of grist for that—but again, that’s part of the chronic illness experience.
Kairol Rosenthal recently wrote a great piece on the young adult cancer community, where she wondered if staying too close in the “safe” world of like patients meant missing out on the shared (relevant) experiences of others. She found she could learn from patients with totally different diagnoses who also had the same worries and fears.
Coupled with this post, a concept we discussed at the President Clinton event has been rattling around in my head for the past week or so. The conversation was about race, religion, respect and how (if) attitudes have evolved over the past few years, but Clinton’s thoughts on identity are very applicable to illness as well. He said (summarizing here) that often humans tend to identify ourselves by negative reference to others—so instead of saying “I am X” we are likely to say, “I am not X.”
Taking that and applying it to chronic illness gets interesting. There are divisions we could use to define ourselves everywhere: those who are lifelong patients versus those who get diagnosed as adults; those whose conditions are life-altering and those whose conditions are life-threatening; those with familiar, common diseases and those with rare diseases; those who live with chronic pain versus those who don’t; those who have a solid support system or access to appropriate health care versus those who might not…the list could go on.
We’ve all experienced negative referencing, whether it’s the waiting room where people are “competing” over who is the sickest, whether it’s in the doctor’s office when we’re filling out forms and checking off boxes that label our conditions, whether it is an offhand comment made by someone that hurts us. I started to do it myself above when I talked about all the labels that do not fit this blog. Really, chronic illness is a huge umbrella term and we all fit under it in some way or another.
Yes, of course there are very real differences—the newly diagnosed patient will face the shock of the “before” and “after” in a way others won’t; the person with a rare condition might face more roadblocks and challenges in diagnosis than the person whose condition can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. That is natural and inevitable. Over the past year, I’ve been lucky to hear from so many people who identify by inclusion, who seek out the shared experiences and emotions. As a society, hopefully we can continue to evolve in this regard. As patients, hopefully we can do that, too.
Thank you for sharing your stories. Thank you for giving me something to write about.
And of course, thank you for reading.