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Scraps of silver in the clouds

July 30, 2010

There’s a double cliche coming up, so bear with me. Being seriously ill, one gets told or says with true sincerity, that there has been a silver lining. You’ve become more patient, kinder, learned to value your health and so on.

The idea is that although you got a crappy deal, at least you weren’t totally ripped off. At least you got something out of this.

This is why I think that’s rubbish. And why I’m still deeply grateful for being seriously ill last year.

Last Sunday in church, I was tired and out of sorts. I was short on sleep and starting to suspect An Attack approaching. I like to call it that, because it’s my body basically going screw you to my plans and shutting down. I fall asleep at tables, I start to slur, my left leg drags, and most of all, my brain drifts. The only reliable cure is to take to my bed and rest.

I didn’t have enough energy to think much, just to stare at icons and listen. And something tugged out a thought again. Nanny Ogg (I think Pratchett’s Carpe Jugulum) and Granny Weatherwax point out sharply to the visiting priest of Om that a newborn baby has done very little worth punishing. A few diapers, perhaps colic, but not damnation.

And I realised that babies get sick and die. Horribly, terribly. Completely and utterly unfairly.

And I felt so full of joy, one of those rare moments of contentment and love.

Right, so before you sharpen your pitchforks, this is why. No-one with a trace of kindness is going to want to hurt a baby or wish it ill. We were babies, we make babies, we love them. When you hand someone a baby, their hands instinctively go to their delicate heads, arms curving around to protect them.

So if a baby, the most blameless and lovable of us, can get sick and die, then illness must have absolutely nothing to do with moral worth.It just is. There’s got to be other reasons (if you believe in a non-random universe at least) but it’s not as a punishment. Good health is not a blessing. It just is.

There’s a lot of fault finding in disease. We chase after what we eat, what we do, what we might have done to deserve this disease we end up with. And there are lots of links, but our desire for a story that punishes the wicked (the sick) and rewards the good (the healthy), makes us ignore things that don’t fit. The young woman who never smoked who dies of lung cancer, the dude who slept around for decades and caught the crabs once. We take a trend and an anecdote and twist it into a morality tale written in our own bodies.

With a less visible disease or even harder, a mental illness, will gets mixed up with desire. If you just want something enough, you’d be able to do it. I’ve known plenty of people desperate enough, but miracles or just plain health are not a question of self discipline. I secretly longed for the people who told me to just buck up to contract a very itchy bug and see how well their self-discipline worked then.

Some of it is hoping we can control things we just can’t. That baby asprin will cut your chances of a heart attack like your uncle, but it’s still chance. You put on your seatbelt, you don’t smoke, you drink a glass of red wine every night – and a piano falls on your head.

So I got sick. Most of it turned out to be a fairly rare side effect of a medication I’d been on. Once I was off, the Attacks went from every week to every other month.

But last year, in the middle of being in bed for days at a time, swimming up to a working brain for an hour or two and then back down, I learned how to be helpless. It was terrifying for my children, to see one parent turn into a zombie. I would do homework with them, propped up on pillows in bed, and then fall asleep until morning when the house would be quiet, my husband having sent them all off to school, and a cup of tea and dry toast left for me.

Months passed in a haze. I learned not to be embarrassed when I fell asleep in public, to ask for help walking, to stop and say “No, I can’t do this, I have to go home now” and gradually, in that soft dull ache of days, everything that didn’t matter fell away. I liked bad TV and I could watch it with my kids. I liked eating soup every day. I was given money that went into staff to take over my job, instead of expanding, something that’s led to us expanding to far more children.

I learned that my husband loved me dearly, in sickness and health. That my children needed me to talk to them, or simply wake for a while and rub their backs, to know that even though I was sick, I still loved them. That people who’d been sick understood in a way other people couldn’t, one of those silent separations like rape and infertility and death.

I’d rather not have been sick. A fantastic blog entry that I now can’t find discussed being told you were brave and amazing for surviving a rape, and how what she had gained from that – deep empathy with other abused people, a strong commitment to justice and honesty – were things she would trade for never having been through the rape.

But suffering isn’t a trade of this much joy for that much pain. It’s not a punishment either. We suffer because this is a messy and difficult world, and while we can find some sense in things – I hit him, so he hit me, I ate that, so I got sick – it’s not the whole story.

I didn’t expect to fall ill, or to remain ill. But I’m grateful for the days I have and the things I learned. If I hadn’t been sick, I’d be grateful for other days and other things I learned.

The silver lining in being sick is the same damn lining in everything.

Although there is something rather glorious about the recovery days – when you walk to the kitchen without losing your breath, when you can bend to touch your toes – that reminds me of the delicious pale pleasure of waking up after a nap. Tonight, I walked for half an hour in the dusk and it was wonderful.

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