There are so many different ways that chronic illness affects our lives. Once, a long time ago, I lived next to a peat bog. It caught fire one summer. Quickly, the raging flames on the surface sunk down through the layers of peat, burning and smoldering for nearly a year. The area was devastated, the smell was terrible, and the mixture of smoke and fog — eventually dubbed by the locals as “bog smog” — created extraordinarily low visibility conditions. Sometimes the hood of your own car would be barely visible, the one time the exaggeration about the thickness of the local sea fog was the factual truth. Many people died on the roads that year.
Chronic illness is smoldering inside of me. It has been for awhile now. It can flare again, and like the firefighters in that town, all I can really do is contain, and watch, and wait. I’ve had to work hard to accept and adapt to being a peat bog … not that, if you asked anyone who knew how clean I keep my bedroom, it should have been that big of a jump.
Perhaps worse than my new status as peat bog fire, though, has been the impact on my nearest and dearest. Sometimes in the heat of the battle it’s easy to forget about the effects that battle has on others. But at other times — like now, working on planning a family vacation — it is painfully obvious the damage the fire has wrought. Even though I’m a graduate student and have long since left the nest – my old room is now a considerably neater guest bedroom – I still enjoy a close relationship with my family. Watching the devastation caused by the pervasive, smelly smog of my chronic illness has been heartrending and frustrating.
I have to live with my status as a student-with-disabilities every day. But I’m several hundred miles from my nearest family member, a couple thousand plus change from my parents. Their interaction with my conditions is limited by distance, which both shelters and hinders them. Instead of seeing all the good and the bad together, they typically get brief, painful news bites at the end of the day or week … trialing this drug or that, developing a new allergy, sick with another infection. If my parents come out to help me through a surgery (which they’ve done, bless them), then they see me at my worst. When I’m back home on vacation, after carefully trying to make sure I’m at peak functionality, with everything work-related cleaned off my plate and nothing to do except relax, it can sometimes seem like I’m doing quite well. That is until, of course, some plan is proposed that I simply cannot do, and my parents are faced with the reality of my conditions again. Slam, the fog descends, leaving everyone blindly feeling their way through the dankness.
Pervasively, slowly, my conditions began to change our family dynamic. I had to come to terms with my illnesses fairly quickly, as it’s my daily life, although in many ways I’m still learning to cope. Insulated by distance and love, my parents are experiencing this journey to peace more slowly. It resembles nothing more than the grieving process. Even though I am not dead, there has still been a loss: the loss of health for a dear daughter. There are stages to the grieving process, modern psychology tells us: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It’s less of a smooth train ride with planned stops than a spinning, jouncy carnival ride.
Denial and anger go hand in hand, smoke to fire. Tendrils of disbelief rise smudgily to the sky – “no, this can’t be. You’re just too sensitive, is all. It’s not possible.” But if there is no belief that something has happened, there is no chance for healing. And I am simply sick. Bright anger flames spring up. “That doctor is a @*&%!!!!” “You should never have done that, that was stupid!” “The insurance industry is such a … !” Anger flares fast at anything in its path: at doctors, at a condition, at the treatment path that I chose. Anger is not always a particularly rational force. It redirects pain but doesn’t always process it. From my own battles with accepting my illnesses, battles I still fight, I know that anger is bizarrely comforting in its own way… it devours so fully there isn’t room left for anything else. Perhaps that’s why it flames so readily to life.
Bargaining results in odd little promises, both to themselves and to me. “Oh, you’ll be better by then,” is something that slips out, hopefully, frequently. Far more rarely comes a more brazen “well, maybe this (insert situation or gift) will motivate you to get better!” Less concrete, but no less attempts at bargaining, are phrases that start with “if only,” or “maybe if I/you just” – a bargain with the past or the future. I bargain with myself all the time, as a sometimes outwardly-motivated person: “if I just get through this PT session, I will eat a popsicle as a reward!” At least bargaining shows that there is some acceptance that there is something, or some reason, to bargain.
Depression is bog smog at its thickest. It can be an odd blend of both the practical and the emotional. Physically, isolation is a serious consequence. Staying with me when I’m sick can be an incredibly isolating experience.The bog smog cut off our small town from the outside world, and in a similar fashion depression can isolate one emotionally. However, no less isolating is being “that family with the sick kid,” because it is completely possible to feel separate from the world even in crowded places. The cost of illness in dollars and cents can cause feelings of despondency with terrible regularity, every time the mail is delivered and another bill appears in the stack, the crisp white envelopes always belying the yawning black hole of hopelessness that opens with its flap. Dire situations prompt a lot of wondering if there will ever be anything different, if there is ever going to be a way to get out of this. There is a lot of sadness and regret for not trying different approaches or doing more things when I could, even though they couldn’t have known the future. There is a sense of loss for what might have been: pretty sparkly dreams that they and their daughter held dear, the things that they fought so hard to enable her to do, might now be out of reach.
Acceptance seems to only come in fits and starts. It’s doubly difficult because I continue to get new diagnoses and develop symptoms, only to combat them and rise again. It isn’t a fixed situation, this slow burn of chronic illness. Control and containment are occasionally shown to be nothing more than illusions. It can be dangerous, dynamic, and incredibly unpredictable. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to go with them on a day’s excursion, or if I’m going to simply need to sit and rest. The changes mean that just when they have managed to “accept” that I might walk slower, suddenly there comes a day when I struggle to walk at all. A food I can eat one day suddenly causes an allergic reaction the next. Accepting that your child is ill, and that the “old” child is no longer — illness took something away from you, and never gave it back — has to be one of the hardest things to face. And although I am 30, not 3, I am no less my parents’ child.
It took a long time for the peat bog fire to burn out. Over the next decade, the bog regrew. Sometimes it would look the same for months, waiting for the next season of change. But then overnight, with a decent rain and the right conditions, it would suddenly seem neon with bright new growth, electric life. Now trees grow there, and all the animals, including several threatened and endangered species, are back. It takes time to heal. It takes space. It takes a certain kind of resiliency to weather the fire and then come back, and that my parents try at all is a sign of their fortitude. I am proud of them.
To parents, I want you to know that it is all right to grieve. It isn’t shameful. It isn’t wrong. Don’t be afraid to grieve. For those with sickness watching their parents grieve – hang in there. It might not always seem fair, and it might be painful to experience. But they have to change too, even as you are. Grief is a season, though, and it will pass, like any other season. Eventually the burn scars of the bog are just a testament to the strength of the system, a proof of things endured and conquered. So may it be with grief.
Fly high. Stay strong.