How to Get Sick and Avoid Feeling Sorry for Yourself

"I needed to prove I wasn’t to blame for this failure of body, this wild thing that I couldn’t “suck up” or “get together” by some magical force of will."

Don’t. On either account—obviously don’t get sick if you can help it. But for those of us scheming masochists who thrust horrible health conditions upon ourselves out of pure boredom, we need to find a way to address every angle of ourselves in order to process, even if some angles aren’t so pretty. We need to find a way around this it’s-fine-I’m-fine-we’re-all-perfectly-properly-fine façade and speak to the God’s honest truth: sicknesses suck.

From sniffles to carcinoma and everything in between, no (sane) person in history has ever thought, “Oh hell yeah! Debilitating weakness and mild-to-severe discomfort? I can dig it.” (If in fact someone has thought this, please contact me for a sincere apology and face-palm combo).

Yet we paste a constant bandage of propriety over our bullet wounds of anxiety, sadness, and physical pain. Because who wants to be the friend yapping on and on about the vast and endless horrors of their failing organs at a cocktail party where everyone else is just tryna shake their respective money-makers to shittily* mashed-up pop songs? We generally want to coast gracefully into a fellow smiling, zen self who has smiling, zen reactions to anything life throws us. And we want to prove that we are self-respecting and (*gasp*) adult. We see none of these things within the ugly shade of self-pity, so we move away from it. We sizzle in the sun of falsified emotional reactions and the hot sand of forced forward movement. We extend metaphors far beyond their appropriate uses.

Allow me to ever-so-smoothly digress: in the past year I decided to move overseas in order to escape that ugly, shaded thing. I had had my fair share of "suck-it-up"’s and smotherings, and I wanted to find the sweet spot in life that rests somewhere in between the harsh refusal to feel and an inability to process emotions as anything less than massive planets with their own inescapable, gravitational pull. In short, I wanted to stop feeling sorry for myself. And I almost got there. I swear. I filled each wet, hot day with drawing things I wanted to draw and writing poems I wanted to write and reading books I wanted to read. I ran again. I ate what I wanted. I had a body and I did not hate myself for this. I spilled camera flashes at unremarkable scenes and in their pavement cracks or fabric tears I saw beautiful wrinkles of this earth’s aged face. I was in a place and this place resembled contentment. And then I got sick.

*Avoid making a pun about doctors and Doc Martens avoid avoid avoid, you can do this Kirsten, breathe breathe breathe* Illustration and feature illustration by Kirsten Samanich

*Avoid making a pun about doctors and Doc Martens avoid avoid avoid, you can do this Kirsten, breathe breathe breathe* Illustration and feature illustration by Kirsten Samanich

To spare you the gory details (and to save my oh-so-sexy health records for future pickup lines), I’ll boil it down to this: among many things, I have a chronic immune disorder that mimics the effects of extreme food allergies and causes exhaustion, sleep disorders, anxiety, bloating, pain, all those things that go bump (and fml) in the night (sup, fellaz? ;) ). But I wanted to keep that fuzzy, sugared glow I had finally found. So I tied it to the leash of a smiling, zen lie. Which was that I was fine. That everything was fine. That my time abroad was nothing other than extraordinarily fulfilling and transcendent. An exercise in weightlessness.

In reality, my “ohmygoodness, so great, you wouldn’t believe it” sabbatical had warped into a blind navigation of foreign hospital walls and the beast of panic growling feral in my skin. I flat-out did not know what to do or how to feel. I never cried. I never wrote about it. For the first time in my life I listened to only upbeat music. I word-vomited a daily dose of fear and alphabet soup onto a friend, but the dominant part of me, the smiling, zen lie, made sure to follow up anything true with everything that wasn’t. “I’m scared to death, but it’s okay.” I tossed silver linings like pokéballs after any hint at my loss of self-control slipped out. Emails to my parents began and ended with apologies. I felt guilty asking doctors useful questions for fear that I might “waste their time.”

And, here’s the real kicker: the emotion I snagged like a freshwater fish and plucked from my own head to examine, because it was so abrupt, so foreign, so flushed with something disturbing and alive. On the morning I was set to have a (minor) surgery, part of which was a biopsy in order to ensure my condition was not cancerous (it wasn’t, after all, but hell if that wasn’t the worst waiting period of my life), I woke up, washed up, gathered my insurance and ID and all that jazz, and something clicked in me and told me to go back to the bathroom and put myself even more together. I redid my hair into something fancy. I rewashed my face. I crawled into a button-up collar and swam through an airborne sea of perfume. I remember, in the dreamlike way we sometimes think things in amorphous bursts instead of clear, linear sentences, thinking about not wanting to deserve this. Thinking I didn’t want the doctors to think I deserved this. I needed to prove to them I was worthy of healing. I could be clean enough and dressed up enough and I knew how to fishtail braid my hair.

I needed to prove I wasn’t to blame for this failure of body, this wild thing that I couldn’t “suck up” or “get together” by some magical force of will.

To be sorry is, for the most part, to admit something external is at play; it is the distance between something happening to you and a something resulting from your own behavior. When you say you are sorry for someone's loss, you are only implicating collateral pain, not murder (again, speaking optimistically here folks). Thus, to deny feeling sorry for yourself in the face of something so big and scary is to grow a whole new garden of twisted reactions. In its place you will find self-blame, self-hatred, jagged theories that you are weak. If only you could want harder and push further, bad things might never touch you. But when they do, when they always eventually do, self-pity is as natural as empathy for another. When your friend tells you she is sick, you don’t cut straight to the at-least-you’re-alive-you-selfish-unfeeling-wench spiel (if you do, again, contact me for a personalized face-palm). You listen, you relate, you chant together that illnesses suck, tape their pictures to dartboards, and immediately unfollow them on twitter. You hug and you reassure and when her diet restrictions whittle down to gross shakes and tiny salads, you do not say you are jealous of her weight loss or pretend her meal looks delicious. Because she just wants cake, damn it! You help your friend mourn the loss of a sense of security and wholeness that she didn’t realize she had until she lost it.

So do the same for yourself. Process. React. Because when the silver linings come, and trust me, they always come in their own good time--tricky, evasive lovers that they are, you’re going to want to recognize their fuzzy, sugared glow. Even if it just looks like acceptance. So don’t light up the room with false, temporary light, and wait. Feel. Mourn your loss. Fantasize about cake.