Coping With Chronic Illness

RA Guy Community News 7 Comments

by JoAnn LeMaistre

“Traditionally, the experience of serious illness has been approached in two ways: (1) a gloomy perspective of resignation, self-denial, and helplessness, or (2) a Pollyanna approach that denies altogether that there has been a real trauma. Both of these perspectives distort and disguise the reality of chronic illness.

The first perspective views the chronically ill person as a failure. This is the patient who does not respond to the ‘miracle’ of modern medicine, and somehow the lack of recovery is often perceived as the patient’s fault. This attitude of blame accounts for some of the worst psychological abuses of patients by health practitioners and caretakers, an attitude typified by the too-frequently heard statement, ‘Stop complaining. You simply must adjust.’ Unfortunately, the sick person may also adopt this punishing attitude toward himself or herself. Sadly, the word ‘adjust’ too often means ‘resign,’ ‘settle for less than a desirable existence,’ and ‘surrender.’ At its worst, ‘adjust’ is just another way of saying ‘You are now a nonperson without the right to experience strong passions, desires, or fierce and unyielding hope.’ All the anger and blame inherent in this attitude is misdirected: the patient rather than the disease becomes the target.

The Pollyanna approach is typified by — and fueled by — personal stories or testimonials of complete recovery from extreme illness or disabling conditions. These stories tug at the heartstrings and catch the fancy of all who read them. Besides creating false hope by overplaying the likelihood of complete recovery, these stories consistently underplay the sadness and feelings of worthlessness that are part of the legacy of any physical or emotional trauma.

Sometimes, it is useful in social situations to present yourself as a Pollyanna. When meeting new people and situations, it may be an advantage for you to let others think you have mastered your disease. The anxiety of other people is reduced by not having to confront illness. The danger is that this Pollyanna image may create a barrier between you and the people who can offer real help.

The resignation viewpoint holds little hope; the Pollyanna viewpoint holds little reality.”

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Comments 7

  1. Lori Lachenmeier

    I think the people who cope with their illnesses the best, take both approaches. The majority of people around us simply don’t want to hear our struggles. They may be interested once, but after that, they no longer care to hear of the day to day struggles we face. I am learing to try and play the Polyanna role around most people, and only allow a select few that are close to me, know my real concerns and worries about my disease. I’ve had a couple of very close family members scream at me about how I whine about “MY RA ! MY RA !” It became very clear that they are ignorant, uncaring, and as the saying goes, if you can’t deal with me on my worst days, you don’t deserve me on my best days. I’ve learned to cut people out who aren’t beneficial to me.

  2. dennyp

    I have a really hard time dealing with what I have, but I pretend that it’s all okay. I tell people “at least I don’t have cancer” as if I’m trying to be strong. Unfortunately, when I’m alone, I feel like crap all the time and I don’t know how to deal with this illness. I used to define myself with athletics, and now it’s all gone. I flat out don’t know what to do!

  3. HayWire0831

    This is genius, but also makes me sad because I believe I’m starting to get to the “gloomy perspective of resignation, self-denial, and helplessness” point. :-\

    Where’s the happy medium?

  4. Lemon-Aid

    I’d like to think I’m somewhere in the middle but then again, few people know about my illness (lupus and all that goes with it). Those who do know can pretty much see how I’m doing from my level of participation in every day life. Those who don’t know either have no clue, don’t really care, or at times they think I “need to get more rest”. I’d rather not share my challenges and and just steer the conversation in another direction. Maybe that’s actually being a Pollyanna but it keeps people out of my business.

  5. Carla

    Terrific post. I think a very realistic discussion. It looks like the book from which its excerpted might offer a lot as well.

  6. Scott S

    You are correct in that the mainstream press tends to present chronic illness as either pollyana or doom & gloom, but that’s largely because it makes for a convenient headline. The reality for most of us with chronic illnesses lies somewhere in between these extremes, yet outside observers might never realize it. While living with chronic diseases need not render us as fatalists, the term “chronic” is seldom acknowledged by the medical profession, yet contributes to long-term challenges in maintaining health over time. I have argued that anger can and should play an important role in living with chronic disease provided that anger is channeled correctly.

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