Chronic Healing

How to live despite and beyond chronic illness

Where is the Prize?

Finding choice in which prizes to pursue.

As a child I was permitted the occasional box of Cracker Jacks/Prize Inside. The caramel corn was ok, but wasn’t really my thing. I have more of a salt tooth than a sweet tooth, but I would root around in that box eating the corn as I continued my search. My father once observed me doing this. I was caught in my secret pursuit. He asked if I liked the candy corn or the surprise inside the box. My immediate answer: The surprise, of course! After further questioning, I admitted I didn’t like the taste of the corn or its texture.

That afternoon he took me to the local Woolworth’s Dime Store. We walked up and down a couple of aisles filled with small “surprises” and all were nicer than the ones buried in the too sweet and sticky popcorn. He said we could stay in those aisles as long as I wanted. Only when ready should I choose two things I liked best. My father emphasized he had plenty of time to devote to this quest. What was most important was that I take time deciding. I understood the obvious meaning. No longer would I have to force myself to eat Cracker Jacks just to obtain a crummy little prize. My father empowered me to select better ones in that dime store. It took many years to realize the deeper meaning of his lesson.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

A girl, and then a woman, can select her own prizes, and make independent decisions. My father was my chief instructor on female independence. It was a particularly important thing to teach a girl who became chronically sick very early. Despite what I had to endure, and the hardships he knew as a child and an adult, my father instilled in me the importance of embracing the daily joys of living. As I got older he encouraged me to understand a boyfriend was not the ultimate prize available to me. Or, that my life would be tasteless or worthless without one. It was my father who first hoisted that particular feminist flag. Girls and women have the option to think about who and what we want to include in our lives. We don’t need to fritter away precious time inside a Cracker Jack Box hoping by random chance the buried surprise will be something we really want. For girls and women who will never be well, claiming ourselves for ourselves is as essential as any medical treatment we might undergo.

Designing an equitable relationship with someone is a readily available prize, even for sick women -- if only we would accept this premise as an article of faith. Rather than rushing headlong toward romances and weddings, if girls and women would say Not Yet to the coupled life, I suspect despair and personal misery would be reduced significantly. The desire to have someone at our side, through rough times in a life filled with health challenges, is very seductive. But choosing a wrong partner can become life threatening to us. Truth is our lives afford us enough time to select our own prizes, or what I call treats along the way. We can liberate ourselves from the obsession of finding that one true love, often at the expense of so much else.

Girl in Bar

© Michael Markham Photography
Numerous self-help books presume to teach women how-to-catch-a-man. Often in precise and strategic steps, authors describe techniques to help a woman act like someone she is not, or to learn how to appear as if a serious relationship is of little consequence. These books are aimed at an audience of women readers who actually want a man forever and ever. Forcing yourself into a human pretzel in order to pretend not to want something you emphatically do want hardly seems a promising way to begin or sustain intimacy. It is no wonder women grow weary of the hunt or the search. It is not a bit surprising so many eventually become disgusted with the phony games. The false comments and coyness women are counseled to develop are an insult to our intelligence and a cheap trick to play on men.

If you doubt the prevalence of these books or the content of their messages, skim a table of contents in any of the many relationship advice books available in the bookstores or online. An all-time attention grabber for me remains: Why Men Marry Bitches: A Woman’s Guide to Winning Her Man’s Heart. It’s the Trifecta of everything we should not want love, romance and marriage to be about -- yet there it is, with many more like it being written as I write this. If men really want tough and unkind women, why would any of us want them? Are men so shallow or so stupid they can be played, ensnared, caught and then caged? These commercially successful books, online courses and DVDs promote their fail-safe maps to the land of marriage vows, but erase the possibility of the expanded humanity we can discover in honest dialogue with another person. These find-a-man programs trivialize the most sacred and tender interactions available to us in a lifetime.

Cake Topper

© Michael Markham Photography
It’s risky enough that our love connections are based upon antiquated courtship mythologies. But we further jeopardize happiness by placing relationships upon the shaky foundation of deception. It’s the prelude to the subsequent horror of realizing you’ve misplaced your trust. This only gets worse as we get older and especially if unwell. Rather than only being heartbroken when love hits the ditch, we feel numb and perhaps humiliated. Romance games result in battle fatigue accompanied by the sense not much matters any longer. We are apt to close down completely, eliminating the opportunity for nurturing and lasting friendships with the opposite sex. At a certain point we’ve heard most of the pickup lines, exit speeches, and participated in various self-protective routines. What began in an over-romanticized frenzy too often concludes with attitudes of us (women) versus them (men) -- this is the language of gender polarization that helped give feminism a bad reputation. In fact, those views have nothing to do with the goals of the women’s movement.

I became a feminist as a girl because I have always been ill and all the doctors in my day were men who thought I was crazy. In fact, they thought my mother was crazy too. Much has changed for all girls and women, and thankfully for sick and disabled women and girls too. -- But not everything, and there’s still much advocacy, education and research to do. What I notice at this time of year, as the holidays press in on us, is that almost everyone feels vulnerable or somewhat exposed. For those of us who are unhealthy, it is even harder. This is a time of year when I descend to a lower self and ask “Why me? –Although I know the answer is “Well, why not me?” But my higher self isn’t always in charge in the run-up to fantasy-charged December holidays. The danger of trying to justify one’s sick existence, when many things already feel like a compromise most of the time, is a toxic endeavor. I am not a regular Facebook user but there was a piece of wisdom posted the other day by Women United. It speaks to self-worth in a succinct way. I tried to find the original author, but it does appear to be the legendary Anon.

“Never waste your time trying to explain who you are to people who are committed to misunderstanding you.”

Happiness
© Michael Markham Photography
If every woman and girl really lived by these words, how much we would accomplish and how much heartbreak we would eliminate. For girls and women who are living on the planet of the chronically ill, it is an even more important goal. We do not choose to have these diseases and disabilities but we can and we must choose how we permit ourselves to be treated in intimate friendships and relationships. To do otherwise is to court interpersonal disasters that impede our lives, not expand them. The holiday season brings out a sense of isolation and longing in many of us. But by accepting ourselves exactly as we are, and reclaiming our status as with myself instead of by myself we engage in an act of self-soothing.

So, where is that Prize?

It is in the daily rhythm of our lives, however challenged they might be. The Prize is Life itself and it is there to be savored. It commands that we must cherish and value our lives, as they are. The unwell and disabled life asks nothing more than constant bravery … and we can meet that requirement absolutely. If you doubt me, go see the newly released movie: The Sessions. Then rethink the feelings of desperation this season often brings into your internal rooms, and chase them away before they rob you of the greatest gifts we have.

The film smacked me into gratitude and joy. I think it might do the same for you.

©Alida Brill, 2012, Chronic Healing, Psychology Today

Alida Brill is an award-winning writer, social critic, and women's advocate. Her most recent book is Dancing at the River's Edge: A Patient and her Doctor Negotiate Life with Chronic Illness. more...

Subscribe to Chronic Healing

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?