October 29, 2012
by Susan McIntyre
In Living in the Theater of the Absurd: Chronic Illness, there are several absurd sets of characters. While they probably reveal a bit of twisted humor on my part, they serve a specific purpose. The concepts behind them could have been written in a dull, serious manner, but I have read enough books on chronic illness that are as dry as the Mojave Desert. Though informative, they are also depressing rather than presenting an attitude of victorious living. I decided to do something different: reveal through example how I use my twisted humor to cope with the lifestyle of chronic illness. There is a great deal of stress in dealing with chronic illness. Fortunately, laughter is a wonderful stress relief.
It not only eats socks from the dryer, it also gobbles whatever I put on a table or countertop. Later on, I look for things, only to find them missing. The Vortex is an analogy to the memory challenges created by chronic illness. A portion of our brain is busy dealing with pain, consciously careful movement, or other coping with body signals. Studies have shown that pain impairs memory because our brain is processing so much at one time. Sadly, many people with chronic illness do not realize this. They blame themselves. They put themselves down. They feel stupid. I know these feelings first-hand. When I have neural pain in my spine, I may try to do my daily tasks yet find myself hindered by the fact that I can’t even remember where I put the cordless phone! One thing after another is misplaced, and frustration builds up. This is the time to realize that it is not that we are stupid, but that our brains are extra-busy. I created the Vortex as a shorthand communication with my family. When I tell them the Vortex ate my pen, they know that I am coping with more than typical forgetfulness. They understand that I need a bit of help because my body is in pain and I can’t remember simple tasks. The Vortex is a way of externalizing the dynamic rather than falling into self-blame.
Monsters represent the chronic illness or condition. Many books on chronic illness focus on acceptance of the condition. While acceptance is an important factor, so is fighting back. Instead of being overwhelmed by medical conditions and falling into self-pity, I decided to go into battle. This involves knowing as much as possible about the condition. From there, we progress to what we can or can’t do about it. There are many responses that can at least make our daily lives more comfortable. Knowledge, determination, and hope are key factors in living a victorious life. For me, faith is an additional factor. We learn what we can do to ease our days, but then we must do these coping strategies. I use the analogy of putting monsters in their cages. By using coping strategies, we gain a bit of control over the degree to which chronic illness dominates our days. When we reach a stage where the chronic illness is present but we also live, love and laugh, then our monsters have been put in their cages. They no longer scare us into a corner.
I use this concept for the negative thoughts that come with self-pity, discouragement, critical comments made by others, and so forth. I chose to use gremlins because they are of darkness rather than of light. We also think of gremlins as being smaller than monsters, and thus I created an imaginary giant fly swatter to squash them or chase them away. There are plenty of negative thoughts or comments that come our way, and they do not help our health. If we let negativity rule, it will leave us isolated and bitter. Having an imaginary fly swatter and the concept that negative thoughts (gremlins) can be resisted is a way of creating awareness that our thought life is part of increasing health or illness. While chronic illness is biological, it can be made worse through negativity. I choose to laugh, love, and find what is good in life. I hate to take all the medicines that are prescribed. Gremlins often attack at my dose times. I get out my giant fly swatter and shoo them away. Instead of being resentful, I become grateful that I have medicines that can make my life easier. If I lived a hundred years ago, many of these medicines would not have been available.
I am grateful to my doctors for their wisdom, diagnoses and carefully chosen prescriptions. When my doctors decide to come home and empty my dishwasher, clean my house, keep track of my things, and do my laundry, then I will not need a book such as Living in the Theater of the Absurd: Chronic Illness.
The diagnosis and prescription are only the beginning. How we live beyond them is up to us. Our character, relationships, thought-life, and daily tasks present challenges that go beyond the average life. However, there are also gifts. We learn to laugh at absurdity. We learn to hold onto that which is important. We treasure life. I am repeatedly impressed with the fullness of spirit in those I have met who deal with chronic illness. When they cry, they mean it. There are times when tears are appropriate. But when they smile, it is as genuine and real as a brilliant ray of sunshine. They have fought the battles, and smile because life can hold goodness regardless of circumstances. However, never discount the effort it has taken to reach the point of smiling.