Why not me? The Guilt of Relative Health (or, Thriver’s Guilt)

This weekend I put off doing homework for a few days and decided on the spur of the moment to watch the Stanford Medicine X conference livestream. I had never heard about it before the hashtag #MedX kept popping up on my twitter feed, and when I looked into it a little further I discovered that the topic of the conference was something that is close to home: social media, patient advocacy, and patient-centered health care.

These are broad strokes, of course, to summarize the key themes I took away from this well-designed three-day conference, because those are the points I have been thinking about this week. And those are the themes that unlocked the latent voice of the patient advocate in me.

For years I wanted to go to medical school. I thought that was the most esteemed route, the path that would lead me to the only place where I could learn something new every day, teach others, and change people’s lives. I graduated valedictorian of my high school class, so no one was surprised when I proclaimed that I wanted to be a neurosurgeon.

And then one day I fainted at the sight of blood. And I fainted again a few days after that when I cut my finger with a pair of scissors. How ridiculous! A body that couldn’t bear the sight of blood, no matter how adamant its brain protested. Honestly, have you ever heard of something so absurd? But that was my new reality, and I turned my dream elsewhere as I stumbled through freshman fall, lost and unsure of how I could plan my life so I could make a difference – outside of the operating room.

Luckily I didn’t take very long to embrace the key tenets of a liberal arts education, and I found myself swept up in learning for the sake of learning, for expanding my world view without a concrete end point in mind. Soon I did manage to formulate a plan, however, that involved copious travel, working for the State Department, and championing women’s rights in Afghanistan. Or something along those lines. I was living a new dream, one where I studied as many languages as possible, buried my head in Foreign Policy back issues, and never missed a meeting of the Community Action Committee at the Institute of Politics.

My health problems began to catch up with me, and with each subsequent blood test, doctor’s visit, or hour of frustrating online research, I took solace in the literature classics that had been my refuge between high school chemistry exams. I rediscovered my love of analyzing literature and understanding their historical context, which landed me in my current position as a History and Literature major. And as someone without a solid life plan.

I don’t mean to soliloquize about my “college years” (after all, I’m only 21) – this is all just to say that I have spent a lot of time trying to get to know myself and understand where I’m headed. With every shift in interest, I’ve always constructed a new plan, a new shape for my identity, and last weekend’s conference had me thinking about where my identity is headed next.

Who am I?

I am first and foremost a daughter, then an older sister, then a best friend. A student and a dancer, then a student and a singer. A roommate and classmate. And then: a patient. A chronic patient in search of answers, treatments, solutions, best practices.

It is becoming harder and harder to separate all of these facets of my identity, as is usually the case once one reaches adulthood, I imagine. I can’t hide my pain from my roommates anymore, nor from the women in my choir. Every time I ask someone to help me open the door or lift my backpack from the floor, I feel a piece of the 19-year old student slipping away. I’m not the same person my roommate met two years ago, and I don’t know what I look like in her eyes. Does she understand that I’m not making any of this up? That my increasing doctor’s visits aren’t due to my increasing hypochondria, but instead to an increase in symptoms? Who does she see? It used to be relatively simple to guess: I was a book-loving introvert who loved to sing in the shower and talked way too long about the beautiful sunset I saw on my stroll along the Charles. But now? Who am I?

On our annual retreat this year, I told the 45 young women in my choir that I am officially disabled. We have a section of the two-day retreat where people have the opportunity to speak about how much the choir means to them (we’re a tight-knit group), and something inside me was moved to get up and tell them my story. When I finished, there was not a dry eye in the room, and I sat down stunned. How had I just moved people like that? I have formal training as an actress in musical theatre, but that was no performance. They had reacted to my genuine story, my heartfelt emotion and gratitude for their never-ending support. I told them about my illness because I wanted to tell them how much they all mean to me, that their smiles and hugs and displays of sisterly affection are sometimes the only things that propel me out of bed in the morning, even if they never knew.

I got lucky: after I told them my story, no one treated me differently. A few girls came up to me and told me that they never knew what I had been going through, and I received a few text messages from girls saying that they wanted to be like me when they “grew up”, but when we were back at rehearsal, there was no pity or fear in anyone’s eyes.

Apparently, I’m a role model.

But in the wake of hearing so many incredible stories about chronically ill patients at Med X, I can’t help but think that I’m not sick enough to be a role model. There are so many other people who are living their lives despite really difficult illness, and compared to them I look healthy. Sure, I have a chronic illness, but I can walk, most days I make it to class, I get to see my friends almost every day, and I sing in and am on the executive committee of a student-run collegiate choir.

Why do I get to do these things when other people struggle to make it to the bathroom? Who am I to have these opportunities in between dealing with my illness? 

Recognizing my abilities in my disabled body has had the double-edged effect of making me so grateful for the blessings I have been given and also making me feel so guilty for them. My mind wants to tell me that I’m a fraud when I have a day at a 3 on the pain scale, and so I’m momentarily relieved when I dislocate my shoulder rolling out of bed, or I pinch my piriformis walking down the street, because then I know that I’m not making this up. And yet these things are only a fraction of what other spoonies go through. 

Who am I? How can I tell people I’m sick when I have a good day? How can I believe my own symptoms when they disappear for a day, or an hour? What is my new reality this time?

I sometimes feel like I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop, and in effect, I really am. My doctors unfortunately do not take the time to research my case (except for my wonderful physical therapist), so every time I see them and request a new test or exam, they find new conclusive evidence to support my diagnosis, and this leads me to believe that we will continue to find more problems. This is not to say that I want those problems! I don’t, believe me. I really still harbor that dream of traveling the world and saving lives and at this point it’s looking like that could only happen inch by inch.

But this brings me back to last weekend, and to when I reconciled my guilt and my abilities. I realized that there is a reason that I am going to graduate from college and work in academia instead of living my life from my bed: I get to fight for those who can’t. I don’t know how I will do this, but I know that there is a reason that this struggle has been placed on my heart and in the front of my mind, and that I will find a way.

This seems like big thinking in a short period of time, I know. But I’m a dreamer. I tend to think big, and I’m not willing to scale this one down. I think I will figure out how to get there, how to become a patient advocate for myself and others. I think I can.

And I’m not quite used to feeling guilty for not being in pain sometimes, or not having to reduce my shoulders 20+ times a day, but I think that will come too. I think I’ll figure out how to deal with the pain that I do have without looking for more, and perhaps that will come when my doctors finally take the diagnosis they have written on my chart and believe it themselves so I can start believing it as well.

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3 thoughts on “Why not me? The Guilt of Relative Health (or, Thriver’s Guilt)

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Labels | What Can I Give Today?

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