Mental Health Beyond 101: Chronic Illness and Why Normal Is a Trap
This article is part of a series on going deeper into mental health and wellness.
There are a lot of things about having a chronic illness that suck: taking a lot of meds, people not understanding what it is you have, and, you know, being sick for the rest of your life, just to name a few.
But one of the things I’ve struggled with the most since getting diagnosed 10 years ago is a desire to be normal.
What is normal, and why on Earth do we seem to want it so much?
In my case, normal means healthy. It means a return to that 20-year-old who had no clue as to what was ahead. It means not worrying about drug interactions or balancing short-term benefit with long-term harm or dealing with the unpredictability that comes with an autoimmune disorder.
A return to life with no symptoms: That’s what the goal of every doctor’s appointment, every new pill or injection, every change to diet and exercise is supposed to be. Right? That’s what we’re all supposed to want.
And, in some ways, I do. Of course I do. Who wouldn’t want to be normal, in that regard, anyway?
But it’s an impossible standard. Unless they come up with a cure, I’m not going to see normal. And, honestly, even if they did, the person I am now is not the same one who would exist without having gone through these experiences. That 20-year-old who has never been sick doesn’t become the me who exists right now any way except through thousands of pills, hundreds of injections, countless hours in doctor’s offices.
And that’s OK.
Besides, striving for normal discounts all the progress that I have made. I am on less toxic drugs than I was on six months ago. That’s a victory. Five years ago, I was in such bad shape that I couldn’t even walk 1 mile. So far this year, I’ve completed three 5Ks. That’s a victory. I am getting better at knowing my limits than even a few months ago. That’s a victory. But none of them seem to be wins if my ultimate goal is normalcy. Then those things are all losses: I’m still on toxic drugs. There are some days I still struggle with completing 1 mile. My limits aren’t those of a healthy person. Framed that way, those are negatives. And if I think of them that way, I will drown in that negativity.
And it’s OK to grieve those very real losses. It’s OK to be afraid of what will happen the next time some drug stops working—and if 10 years and a dozen drugs has taught me anything, it’s that it will stop working. It’s OK to feel anxiety at the start of every flare. It’s OK to worry about the next thing this disease will take away and what life will look like five or 10 years down the road.
But it’s also important—so important in fighting a disease that changes every day and in fighting a disease that’s essentially my body fighting itself—to recognize when you’re setting yourself up to fail.
Normal is a test I will never pass.
There’s part of me that I think will always grieve that. But I can learn to take the fear out of not being normal. I can learn how to see the positives in what I do have. I can learn to see normal for the trap it is.