There’s an interesting meme going around Facebook and blogs right now: 30 Things About My Invisible Illness You May Not Know. With Invisible Illness Week quickly approaching, the questions posed are particularly resonant.
I’ve thought a lot about how I’d answer the questions. For some, I had immediate replies, like “Something I never thought I could do with my illness that I did was __” (live abroad for a year) and “The hardest part about mornings are __” (trying to be awake and, you know, pleasant for early morning chest PT). But several of them touched on things that my experiences don’t speak to in the same way; namely, the “before” and “after” of illness onset, or, most notably, “If I could have one day of feeling normal again I would__.”
Like many lifelong patients, this is my normal. I cannot long for what I cannot imagine. But the question of which is better, to have known healthy before getting sick or to have never known healthy—a question that comes up fairly often—actually hints at something deeper than these static boundaries. This is my normal, this is the life I created from the circumstances in which I found myself and I would not trade what I have created for a taste of a different meaning of normal.
Though I’m not going to complete the whole meme here, I think it can be incredibly useful, and not just for people adjusting to sudden or adult-onset chronic illness. As I read people’s replies about what nice/surprising things others have done for them, it hit me how much of that is my normal, too. I’ve always been sick, I’ve always been surrounded by friends and family, so I have, quite literally, grown up having people respond to me with compassion, loyalty, and empathy.
In fact, the hospital visits, cards, phone calls, Fed-Ex’ed mix CDs, etc and the intrinsic knowing that there are people who will come in the middle of the night if they are ever asked form such an enormous debt of gratitude I feel no amount of similar deeds I do for others can ever repay it.
(Of course there have been moments of the opposite, and friendships that didn’t survive this, but like the careless comments, insensitive assumptions, or completely inane expectations I’ve received, they are exceptions, not the norm. Er, normal. Not trying to pun here.)
I’m not saying I haven’t had adjustments to make, or new realities to forge. I didn’t get correctly diagnosed with some of my more serious problems until I was an adult, and my treatments changed significantly. And like most patients with chronic illness, my health status fluctuates frequently and drastically, so life is a constant cycle of readjustment.
After mulling this over for a few days, though, I think the more striking “before” and “after” I can point to is that between illness being public or private. For twenty-three years I was sick and while it seeped into everything I did and every decision I made, it wasn’t something I talked about outside of family, friends, teachers, and of course, doctors. I’ve had some sort of a byline since I was 14, but the only piece of “public” writing that concerned illness was my college essay, and that was mainly because I felt I should probably explain why I missed the better part of two years of high school. You know, minor details.
And then, as the story goes, I found myself in a nonfiction course in my MFA program with a looming deadline and I didn’t know what else to write about, so I wrote about life in the hospital and suddenly, eleven other people knew more about my thoughts and emotions during medical crises than most people in my life did.
A few years, a few hundred blog posts, one book and another in the works, and many, many exchanges with other writers, bloggers, and patients later, here I am. And as much as I work to update and refine my reality based on the color of my lung secretions, how much air I can breathe in, or what other random infection or problem that springs up, I find the balance between private and public just as important and just as complicated.
I strive for the universals of modern chronic illness but know those depend on particulars. After all, all writing must tell a good story, and that story comes in the details. I embrace the conversations and explorations a more public illness experience allows for, and I appreciate the irony that people who read what I write are sometimes more in tune with what’s going on than people I know—it’s a macro version of that first workshop experience I had as an MFA student.
But for all the stuff that happens offline, the daily minutiae and the more serious decisions and reactions that are part of my normal that do not make their way into my posts, I am equally grateful for the private experience of illness.
And so to return to the meme, let’s look at #26: “When someone is diagnosed I’d like to tell them__.” Based on this post, I’d tell them of the value of online communities and social media, of how interesting and affirming it can be to read other people’s experiences and see traces of your own story in them. I’d tell them to connect, to leave comments on blogs, to know no one has all the answers but you should always be open to learning from others’ perspectives.
And I’d tell them that the best-case scenario is to also have someone you can call when you are crying and need someone to hear the tears, or when you have good news that the people who have traveled this long road with you offline can appreciate the most.