Better Living Through Snark

Chronic illness builds character like you wouldn't believe.

Yes, You Can't!: Embracing Limitations Like a Champ

On redefining your abilities without losing your worth

Like any good food obsessive, I frequently zone out in front of Food Network. In one episode of the cooking show Chopped, a cocky, attractive young chef announced to the camera: “I always tell my kids, ‘Don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.’ I tell them, ‘”Can’t” is an action and it isn’t real.’” I laughed so hard I nearly fell off my throne of Dashed Dreams

Oh, really, bro? “Can’t” isn’t real? The Phys Ed Rope Climb and my noodly arms beg to differ. Would you like me to steer a sailboat? Or explain how wifi works? Shyeah, thought not. Stick to cooking and leave “can’t” to the pros. Drop the mic. Caven out.

In my experience, redefining your abilities thanks to a chronic illness is one of the hardest things to handle. Most of us start out with this chef’s self-assuredness: “can’t” is an action and it isn’t real! Lifetimes of plucky American can-do determination make us believe that our ill health is something to work extra hard to overcome. Pain is weakness leaving the body! Blast “Eye of the Tiger”! Pull yourself up by your bootstraps and for the love of all that is holy, stop puking!

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Over the years, I’ve heard almost every one of my chronically ill friends echo this sentiment. “I refuse to let [illness] win,” they might say, or “yeah, I probably shouldn’t go out tonight, but I’ll be fine.” I used to be this person, too. I equated strength with ignoring everything beneath my chin. I developed an ironclad poker face. I left behind me trails of pills, like a twisted Hansel and Gretel.

“Fighting through the pain”, the impulse that at the time seemed noble, now strikes me as foolish. I stayed and fought for normalcy for months, even years, longer than I should have. I ate the wrong things, drank more than I wanted to, stayed out later than I should have, all in pursuit of “normal.” It was, in a word, dumb.

 Though my years of denial and strain was rarely worth it, nor am I willing to turn off my phone and surrender to a lifetime of responsibility and crochet. This is the real challenge: feeling out, minute to minute, the fine line between “possible” and “forfeit this one.”

While “can’t” is very real, it’s also moving target. It requires flexibility from yourself and the people around you. Maybe today taking a shower is your Everest; maybe by Thursday you climb an actual mountain with no problems. The trick is to concede to your limitations without feeling defined by them. It is much, much easier said than done.

As a case in point, I am posting this a day later than I meant to, all because of “can’t.” And, because I believe in practicing what I preach, I feel okay about it.

Well, kind of. I might be a pro at “can’t,” but I never claimed to be good at its aftermath. That’s Jedi-level acceptance right there, and I’m one of the oboe-playing cantina monsters, at best. The minute I figure it out, though, I’ll post detailed instructions. My plucky American can-do spirit says so.

Caitlin Caven has had Crohn's Disease for over seventeen years but she is still fun at parties.
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