Positivity is not a cure

“Keep a positive attitude.” It’s one of those phrases people say to shut down my emotions. A positive attitude is easier on other people. It makes chronic illness seem less scary, and less difficult. Everyone is familiar with acute illness, an earache, flu, or a cold that slaps them down for a bit, but then they recover. Chronic illness isn’t like that and it is hard for people who don’t have one to understand what it is like.

A positive attitude will carry you through a stomach virus, or even help you recover from surgery. But, when there is no recovery, the advice just hurts. The only way I can keep a positive attitude is by pretending that this doesn’t bother me. Truth is, this does bother me. Some days it bothers me a lot more than I let on. A positive attitude doesn’t change my reality. My reality is brutal, like January in Minneapolis. Acknowledging the brutality of chronic illness doesn’t mean I am giving up. It just means I know I am fighting a battle I cannot win. I am free to lament. Free to grieve my losses. It is spring right now and all around me people are riding bicycles. I see them going up and down the street. I live between a park and a bike path. I remember riding a bike. I remember how it felt to push the pedals, to glide down hills with the wind in my hair. I remember riding my bike. I loved my bike. Now it is gone and I am still here. I am here watching people do what I can’t. On this warm spring day I am free to recognize that I feel left out. I am free to feel tears in my eyes. I am free to grieve the loss.

A positive attitude is not a cure. Painting a happy smile and a rainbow over my head doesn’t change the feeling of loss. It just adds guilt to the sadness, because I don’t feel like smiling through the pain. Instead of keeping a positive attitude, and  pretending that everything is wonderful, when it isn’t, I’ve learned to work on balancing my perspective. No, I didn’t sign up for all this. If I had to choose the one person on earth least likely to handle chronic illness well, it would be me. But, I am here. I am alive. I am outside looking at a garden full of flowers. I planted those flowers 15 years ago, three months after cancer surgery. The flowers greet me each spring, reminding me where I’ve been and how hard I fought to get to this place.

The flowers remind me to balance my perspective. I cannot fix what is wrong. I can acknowledge its impact openly and honestly. Then I can lift myself up again. The garden is beautiful. There is still beauty in this world. The beauty doesn’t always out weigh the ugliness, but I’m learning to pause to look for beauty nonetheless.

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