The Chronic Illness Lecture

I was puzzled when I saw the paper posted on the bulletin board in my friend Cyndy’s kitchen. With back marker, she’d written “The Chronic Illness Lecture” in bold letters across the top. I recalled thinking it was odd when she’d asked me to write down my “lecture” and e-mail it to her.  She said it made her remember our talk and kept her on track.

It had all started when Cyndy had called off several of our planned activities. That’s not like her to postpone our all-important lunches and shopping trips. Her vague explanation was that she had to stay near the bathroom.  She clearly didn’t want to talk about it. I worried and finally badgered her to tell me what was going on.

She described symptoms only in a general way. From what she said, I deduced it was one of several common gastro-intestinal problems. It sounded  like much more than acid reflux; irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis or even crohn’s disease was my thought.

But she was reluctant to give me many details of her recent flurry of doctor visits; she seemed hell bent to fight this thing until she was rid of it. After a month or so of hearing her latest adventure in the world of medicine, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.

I’d been dealing with MS for more than twenty five years and had come to accept the reality of dealing with a chronic health condition. I’d never told anyone about my disease; the law said I’d didn’t have to tell an employer so I’d maintained my work and private life keeping this carefully guarded secret. Now I felt I needed to make an exception. We sat down for a talk.

In the cure oriented world we live in, I began, there’s little attention paid to chronic health conditions. The kind for which there is no cure. These are the ones that don’t come to visit for a while, then get fixed and go away. Instead, these move in for the duration, most of the time, for the rest of your life.

I recalled how before my diagnosis I’d visited many doctors and therapists for an explanation of mysterious symptoms that would come and go. In each instance, I was told I was either stressed or depressed.  Most often, both. Then I was offered an anti-depressant and told to work through it, stay on it. Fight it. Exactly the wrong thing to do.

So, I learned the hard way what happens when you do battle with a chronic health condition. You lose. This slimy parasite has invaded your body and it will have its way with you.   That’s basically the essence of the chronic illness lecture. You have to take care of it. Adjust to it. I’d read an article that recommended treating it as you would a friend with special needs.  Now that’s the epitome of the love/hate relationship if I ever heard one. But It is reality. I told the short story of what I’d learned.

I thought we were having one of our usual girlfriend chats. I didn’t think I was lecturing but perhaps I was. That’s because I felt so strongly about this and had watched Cyndy’s anxiety grow as it became a real possibility that a total cure might be out of reach.

As time passed she seemed calmer, more in control. I never did find out what her actual diagnosis was.  She refused to name it. Eventually, I lost touch with Cyndy after her move to another part of the country. So, I don’t know what the end result was for her.  But I know this taught me a lot and, more important, it reinforced the importance of how to handle my own situation.

I get a kick out of recalling our short time together and how she appreciated the insight I shared with her. But I think I got more out of it than she did because it was a reminder of what I needed to do to stay healthy. And though I’ve never posted the chronic illness lecture on a bulletin board or on my bathroom mirror, I often give myself the talk when I get off track.


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