Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Facade of Good Health and Other Lies of Necessity

hAve becoMe aLL thinGs to all PeoPLe,
so THaT by aLL MEANS I might sAvE some."
(1 Corinthians 9:22b)

Years ago, while working in a hospital as a deaconess, I was caught in an ethical pickle in the Alzheimer's unit. Patients would often mistake me for a childhood friend of theirs, or someone from their old church, or their next door neighbor from 1962. I could have spent my time, and theirs, trying to convince them of who I actually was and where they actually were, but arguing for that truth only brought stress and frustration. These people simply weren't capable of understanding where they were, and no amount of explaining was going to get them to understand who I was.

Would a doctor refuse to set a broken arm until his patient understands that he's a doctor? I certainly hope not. As a deaconess, my job was to point patients to Christ: a reality that thankfully supersedes whatever actuality we think we're in. So, in order that a truth greater than who I was might be heard, after one or two failed attempts at explaining the situation, I'd steer the conversation toward God. I wouldn't egg the person's delusion on outright, but I would lie by omission. That's pretty much the same thing.

See the ethical quandary? After much the same fashion, those of us who are chronically ill are encouraged to “fake” feeling good. A tactic better known as the Get Dressed and Look Your Best Principle. Like not correcting Arlene every time she called me “Trudy” (her best friend from the third grade), trying to not look and act sick when I am sick feels like a big, fat lie. That's probably because it IS a big fat lie. Soooo, why are we told to do it? Well, for several very good reasons. Think about it. Looking and acting sick on the outside isn't as much honest as it is defensive. And like most defense mechanisms, it tends to do more harm than good.
1) The power I was giving my pain and fatigue was staggering. Not only was it the center of my attention, but it was dictating what I was doing, what I was wearing, how my hair looked, and how often I smiled.
2) And it was the center of everyone else's attention. If people saw me looking sick, the focus was immediately on my illness, no matter what my intention was. People started asking questions I didn't want to answer, and my energy was once again focused on my pain.
3) Looking sick can be a crutch, better known as a "pain behavior." It's hard to admit it, but I depended on it to communicate for me. I was afraid that people would forget that I was sick if I didn't look sick, that they wouldn't understand why I didn't volunteer at all the church functions or show up at all the potlucks. I felt validated if I looked as sick as felt: "See??? I really AM at death's door."
4) Is it really a lie to look like I'm okay when I'm not “okay”? If I were to look presentable only when I felt “good,” I would never look presentable. Seriously. If I am to define a new normal for myself, my standard of when I smile, put on makeup, and get dressed is going to have to change along with my definitions of okay and good.
No, I'm not Trudy, but I'm going to brush past that fact for a few minutes while we talk about your baptism and the much more important fact that God is God no matter who you think I am. Yes, I'm in pain, but I'm going to brush past that fact for a few minutes while we...

The point is, my friends, your pain doesn't deserve top billing, and neither did Arlene's confusion. I'm not advocating going to the extremes of vanity and marathon running (MODERATE!) but in order that a truth greater than your pain might be heard, hide that pain from the world when it doesn't need to be seen. One less barrier between you and me leaves a little more room for real conversation, so that I might by all means, save at least some. 

“I do it ALL for the sAke OF THE GosPel, that I MAY ShARE WITH THEM in its Blessings.”

Suggested verse to repeat to yourself if it's a bad day comes from Romans 13:14
Pain Rehab buddies, remember to breathe!
Put on the Lord Jesus Christ; -------> inhale
Make no provision for the flesh.” -------> exhale

For more on the lies of pain, see the post "The Real Problem of Pain."


deaconess [dee-kun-nis] noun
1) A woman belonging to an order or sisterhood dedicated to the care of the sick or poor, or who is engaging in other social service duties, teaching and missionary work.
2) A woman called by a church to assist the congregation in works of service.

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