Compassion for the Darkness

You're going to suffer, it'll suck, and you're not obligated to learn from it.

Posted Apr 24, 2014

A few weeks ago, I wrote a post on “Owning Your Burdens.” I felt pretty good about it, but almost immediately, doubts crept back in.

My former selves (in sweatpants and old tank tops, obviously) started snarking at me. “Ugh, Christ,” one sighed, taking another Percocet. “Great. Super-inspiring stuff. Well done.” Another one went straight for the jugular.

“Who is this girl and where does she live?” she seethed. “I want to punch her in the face.”

My former selves, violent as they are, have a point.


Everyone is so focused on spinning inspiring tales of perseverance that few people ever discuss illness’s dark pits. And man, are they dark.

Perspective and scrappiness are learned traits, and, often in the course of any chronic struggle, you just don’t have the energy to find any bright side. You go through a million different coping mechanisms: obsessing over food, obsessively poring over online message boards, obsessively counting the dots on your ceiling. You find a hundred new ways to blame yourself. Others find new, fresh hells to heap upon you: “My nephew tried probiotics and they cleared his tummy ache right up!” “Have you tried sacrificing a goat to Artemis?” When you’re in this place, you barely have energy required to blink, much less try to interpret your world. Everything is too heavy—the sheets, your thoughts, the sunlight.

It’s important to acknowledge the profound darkness, because it so often gets glossed over. Usually, the pit is only mentioned en route to some fun, Oprah-ready rebirth story, like a zeal for juicing or the founding of a sassy new handbag line. These stories are the worst.

Most of us can't think about the pit when we're not in it, because its existence is too uncomfortable. But this silence only increases the isolation you feel when you’re on your ass and there’s nothing but dirt as far as the eye can see. 


When I wrote that article, and now, as I write this one, I’ve been sun tanning on a lawn chair next to my pit for a while. I have regained the brainpower to be able to sift through my experience and give it words. History is written by the victors, and so too illness literature is written by survivors. When you’re in the bottom of a pit, you don’t want to hear inspiring tales of “people who overcame.” You want the pain to stop, and you want TV to play better shows. That’s what my last article missed.

As a victor writing my history, it’s tempting to heap my own advice, now, on any of my readers who may be in such a pit. I won’t, because I know better. Each of us has to live our highly individualized hell, then use our own particular strategies to pull ourselves out of it. My experience won’t necessarily have any bearing on yours, which is why it is so exhausting to hear others talk about their strategies for miracle recoveries. (And doubly so when you know their “pits” were more like divots, at best. Oh, really, bro? The sun made you sneeze until you went gluten-free? How quaint!)

You’d be surprised by the amount of personal growth that sneaks in when you’re consumed by a Codeine supernova—but, remember, you don’t have to learn anything. Dark places aren’t some adorable test sent to us by mischievous angels, and you don’t need to stand in front of news cameras to make others feel good about the triumph of the human spirit. Dark periods are through-and-through horrible, but they happen to more people than you might guess. You’re not alone. Just keep slogging. And that’s the advice I said I wouldn’t give. 


Caitlin Caven writes the blog "Better Living Through Snark" on being young and chronically ill. You can read her other, non-illness writings at 

Cat photo from Amberhouse, brass knuckles from Wikipedia.

About the Author

Caitlin Caven is a writer and editor who has had Crohn's disease since the age of 10.

More Posts