“How often do you have to come for chemo?” The woman hooked up in the chair next to me–a grandmother with a kind, yet tired face –asked me about two hours into my transfusion.
I looked up at the tubes attached to my arm, blood slowly and mechanically dripping down into the IV.
“No chemo for me,” I said, nodding my head up at the machine. “Blood transfusion because my hemoglobin was dangerously low.”
I was almost embarrassed, humbled by not only that woman, but the other people in the room who were also getting their chemo. I was lucky. I was sick, but I didn’t have cancer.
It could always be worse.
At this time last year I didn’t have a job.
Even though I dreaded returning to one I had gone to every day for seven years, that loss of security seemed like the end of the world. Every day was spent frustratingly looking for work, dealing with the unemployment agency, and trying not to let what was already a years-long deep depression completely sweep me up in the current.
I would lie in bed those unemployed months and make bargains with myself and some unknown higher power. “If I can get this job, I promise I’ll get the help I need for my (insert depression, exercise addiction, OCD here) and really make those big changes.”
“OK. That one didn’t work out. If I can get this job, I promise I’ll stop (insert maladaptive behavior), finally gain those needed 30 lbs, and dig myself out of this hole.”
Then eventually I landed a job I couldn’t have written up more perfectly for myself, one that’s the complete opposite of everything that made my last job so miserable. On even my worst work day, I always tell myself, “Remember how things were. Remember how grateful you are that this happened.”
Things could always be worse.
Yet many days are still a struggle. All those promises I made to myself, all those changes I no longer had an excuse to make are still there. For awhile, the newness and excitement of the job did distract me a bit. Then the OCD got worse, the fog got a little bit thicker. I made up new excuses to distract myself from the problems and continued to literally run myself to the ground, my body taking the brunt of my mind.
I conveniently ignored the signs, but I couldn’t ignore my mom crying about how sick I looked, the nights in my bed when my heart felt like it would either flutter out of my chest or stop, and then the phone call that I had to go in for two blood transfusions as soon as I could.
Sitting in that hospital chair, I had time to do nothing but think.
Everything I had been given could be taken away–the job, the freedom, even my life–because I refused to admit that I couldn’t outthink my physical and mental illness, that doing the same things wouldn’t land me in the same exact place.
Where it landed me was in the hospital with an IV running blood through my arm for eight hours, making small talk with a woman who had been dealt a deadly illness she was valiantly fighting. I again made all those same promises to myself that this time things would be different, that this is what it would take to finally get myself healthy.
And then when I was feeling better a couple of days later, I went back to the gym and all my old habits.
After all, it could be worse, right?
“Well yeah, it’s not cancer and it could be worse,” said my doctor a week later when I gave her my tired excuses. “But not much.”
There it was in black in white in the form of my lab results. There it was coming out of the mouth of a professional who I couldn’t negotiate with like I could–and do–with myself, which is why I’m rambling here.
Because the fact is you can’t negotiate yourself out of physical or mental illness–the latter of which is often suggested to be a choice. After all, if we know what we can do to “get out of it” but still engage in behaviors, that means we’re weak, right? I mean, we have so many good things in our lives that it’s ridiculous there are days that taking a shower is a major accomplishment.
Well, it’s not a choice.
Sickness is sickness, and I’m pretty sure that if we could get hooked up to a machine and have an IV drip some cocktail cure-all for mental illness into our arms, most of us would sign up in a second, no questions asked. It’s not that easy–nothing about it is easy. Wishful and willful thinking alone can’t cure cancer, low hemoglobin, depression, addiction, etc. or the guilt that sometimes accompanies these.
So for me–and for you–here’s a reminder.
It’s not a choice to be sick, but it’s a choice to admit that you are.
It’s a choice to do what you need to do to be healthy, even if it’s really painful in so many ways.
It’s a choice to reach out for support.
It’s a choice not to feel guilty.
I don’t know if I believe that myself most of the time, but I don’t want to know just how much worse things can be.
Because while it’s a choice to believe that “it could be worse,” it’s also a choice to believe that it could always be better.
It can always get better.