(Loving my new The Walking Dead mug. Suits my state of mind perfectly.)
I've had a bit on an unintentional blogging break of late. My mojo has been somewhat absent and my health not exactly stellar. Sometimes it's difficult to keep hold of that happy place no matter how much you want to or how hard you try. No amount of positive thinking works and you end up just beating yourself up for somehow doing happy wrong.
I've noticed there has been a move in some corners of the ether to stop discussing the negative emotional aspects of illness and in my state of funk, it's really rubbed me the wrong way. I've found myself moving further away from various groups which seem more intent on providing more in the way of inspiration-at-all-costs, rather than a safe place to vent and seek support or treatment information.
I'm all for inspiration, but not at the expense of silencing the patient voice. Illness sucks. At times it is hard to find anything positive to cling to. It is scary. It is challenging. It makes you want to cry uncle and hide sobbing in the corner. There is nothing wrong with these feelings. But there is something wrong with stifling those who voice those feelings or judging those who are in those dark places.
I understand not wanting to dwell in those places. That is not healthy. But ignoring them or pretending they don't exist is even more detrimental. Already we judge ourselves more harshly than anyone else possibly could. But to hear that we are somehow doing illness wrong is another level of guilt to bear.
Admitting these emotions is already fraught with stigma. Inspiration porn tells us that we should all be fighting the good fight. That we should face the world with a smile and a Can-Do attitude. That the sun will come out tomorrow. Turn that frown upside down. All you need is a positive attitude. We are beaten over the head with the permanently perky group-think that has been popularised by pop-psychology and smiling, big-haired, over-tanned pseudo-celebrities on the covers of shelf after shelf of self-help books.
Say it's tough and you might as well have said, "on my weekends I enjoy sacrificing small furry kittens to Beelzebub". That is where the problem lies. Not in the patients experiencing real emotions from living in a prolonged stressful situation. It takes courage to say it's not okay in the face of the overwhelming positive brigade.
Sometimes what you need is one safe place to say it's not okay. That you are scared. That it is all getting too hard. This is where a true support group can come to the fore. A healthy support group is a reflection of the different aspects of illness, part inspiration, part support, part venting, part information etc. We need a place to voice those thoughts and feelings free of judgement. To simply hear that someone else understands and has been there. We don't need solutions. We don't need to be told that we should stop being so negative. That we shouldn't share. That we should always try to find the positive. Some days you simply can't, AND THAT'S OKAY. We can support one another without forcing our own beliefs on others. Without expecting others to be in the exact same headspace as we are.
In psychology, there is a concept known as the Theory of Mind. In a nutshell, this theory suggests that we can attribute beliefs, emotions, states of mind etc to ourselves and others, and understand that other people may have beliefs, emotions and needs that are different to our own. It is this theory that allows us to have empathy for others. It means that even though others may be in a different emotional place to ourselves, we can still provide support and care for them. This theory or its lack can make or break a support group.
We can support one another with a long message or even a simple emoticon, a heart or a sending of hugs. Because sometimes that is all that is needed, especially when your heart and mind are already cluttered and overwhelmed. That lets another patient know they are not alone. It lets them know they can vent and then, that they can breathe.
Positivity has its place. I am a positive person by nature. But it cannot be sustained 24/7 and forcing that is an added burden patients don't need. We have a range of emotions for a reason and each has their place. We are all in different places in this illness journey and we can't expect that everyone will be as sanguine as we are in a particular moment.
This past week I felt fear. Something I haven't experienced in a long time. My bradycardia was the worst it's been in....well, to be honest, it was probably the worst it has ever been. I experienced all the scary thoughts. I realised there was a chance that my heart could stop. That my kids could come home to find me. I was scared to be alone. Later that night when my heart rate had stabilised somewhat I realised I was over it. Really over it. I've been sick a long time. I've had enough.
There is no shame in airing those thoughts. They were a natural response to a damn scary situation. They are thoughts that I know others have had. Airing them doesn't scare others. Or if it does it opens up an opportunity for more discussion and support. It allows others who have been sick for a longer time to share their experience. It means that should other patients have those thoughts at some point they know they are not alone. If they see support on a thread from other patients they learn ways to deal with the messy emotions that crop up with living with a complex chronic illness. They also see that we make it through. That no matter how tough it gets, there is a point where it gets better again. That today I am planning art projects and laughing at YouTube videos. The worry of last week is still there, but it is balanced against the good and put in it's place. Today I can laugh and smile again. I made it through. Today's emotion losses much of it's salience if it's not seen alongside the darkness of last week.
Living with illness is a frenetic ride, filled with complex emotions and situations. We face challenges to our sense of self, our relationships, our entire way of living. There are highs and lows and even the most positive people can find themselves dealing with sadness, fear, guilt and other negative emotions at times. Pretending those times don't exist or minimising another's experience does a disservice to ourselves and to our fellow patients.
Shame and fear thrive in silence. And that's one burden we can change.
I should add I am a strong supporter of seeking professional help for dealing with this aspect of chronic illness. For some, psychologists or counsellors, for others clergy, or professional support lines. Support groups fill a very valuable place in dealing with illness, but sometimes more is needed. There is no shame in seeking help for the emotional aspects of dealing with illness, just as you would seek out a cardiologist to help with heart rate issues or a neurologist for small fibre neuropathy, a psychologist can help with the emotional roller-coaster that is chronic illness.
Love this cover of Tears for Fears, Mad World. Plus it was featured in Donnie Darko one of my all-time favourite movies.