I’m going to ask my fellow Denver Bronco fans to go to a very dark place for a moment.
Imagine that the recent Super Bowl bus accident was worse. Imagine that Von Miller, our monster with a license to sack, was hurt badly. So badly, in fact, that he was unable to suit up and take the field for Super Bowl 50.
Undaunted, the brothers of the Orange Crush know exactly what they must do. And when game time comes, they stream onto the field – 10 players, ready to go, with a gap where Miller would normally stand.
“We can’t let ourselves be dragged down by this,” they insist. “We have to think positively. If we play as though Von were still here, the rest won’t matter.”
And then of course, they get beaten like a drum. Why? Because you’ve still got 10 men going up against 11. And all the positive thinking in the world won’t change the realities of math.
It sounds obvious. Even a little bit silly.
But when it comes to the world of chronic illness, you’d be amazed how many missing Millers there are.
My wife Heather runs into this every so often online. Her own list of chronic conditions would have medical students fighting for the chance to invite her to show-and-tell. Crohn’s disease. Multiple sclerosis. Ankylosing spondylitis. A couple of others that lengthen the medical file and send spell check screaming for help.
Because of her situation, she visits a lot of patient-oriented online forums and groups. And when someone else wants to talk about their condition or the pain and discomfort it causes, she’ll usually respond, just to help the person see they’re not alone.
Unless, of course, someone else closes off the discussion first by insisting that “we don’t want to dwell on our illness here.” Or that “Focusing on it only gives it power over you.” Or otherwise implies (or states!) that by refusing to acknowledge the illness, you can continue to live your life in spite of it – sort of a medical prosperity gospel.
Few things will infuriate Heather more quickly.
“There’s not a part of my life that hasn’t been touched by this,” she told me recently, after one more clash with the power of positive thinking. “You have this – and it’s OK. You have to work with what you have.”
That’s true of so much more than the medical.
It’s a human thing to try to wish problems away, or to hope that ignoring an issue will eventually resolve it. It’s rarely that easy. You can compensate for it. Work around it. Even maybe come to peace with it. But outright denial not only doesn’t help, it can often make the problem worse. Ever driven a car too long on a flat tire? Or tried to exercise through a minor injury, only to discover what a major one’s like?
Contrary to the popular imagery, chronic illness isn’t a war. Not in the usual sense, anyway, where you can rally the cavalry and sweep the enemy off the field. It’s more like being a civilian during the Blitz, the German bombing of London in World War II. You don’t ignore the bombs. You take shelter when you have to. But you keep on living your life as best you can, making adjustments for what’s been damaged or lost.
It doesn’t mean you drown in your pain or become morbidly obsessed with your condition. But you forge a sort of partnership, taking what you can, planning where you must. Not a life without hope – quite the opposite! – but a life with the awareness and effort that real hope requires.
It’s OK to not be better. It’s not your fault. It doesn’t mean you’ve failed. You can own it, and in doing so, deal with it.
Take your best 11 and put ‘em out there. It might not be the team you want. But it’s the one you’ve got.