Updated: Nov 22, 2019
Battle, War, Combat, Fight--common terms used to describe a response to illness. This metaphor, as in the "War On Cancer," originated in the 1970's. However, the reader will be surprised to know that the use of military terminology hearkens back to the 17th century. The image of a soldier combating an illness with weapons is typically invoked by professionals and lay persons. I read blogs of people who have cancer, and the war vocabulary is a part of the patient's lexicon.
A few years ago, I thought in the same terms--be a warrior, "kill" the cancer cells, scads of "knights" on horseback attack the deviant malignancy with lances. A violent battle will be waged against the spread of dangerous cells; by all means, everything possible should be attempted to bring a person back to health, even a 91 year old. Get rid of the nasty tissue gone haywire. But, and here is the but.
Waging war, as a metaphor, is also utilized to face mental illness and drug addiction, as in the "War on Drugs". "We will do all we can to fight this"; "Why doesn't he fight harder?"; and "Why does she give in?" are phrases people use.
Americans seem to have difficulty accepting what we cannot control. We do not have dominion over nature. A sick body is a sick body; a sick brain is a sick brain. I love healing and health. But nature is independent of our minds.
I am powerless to conquer mental illness. Certainly, there are drugs and psychotherapy which eliminate or decrease symptoms, but the illness remains. Alcoholism is an excellent case in point. I am impotent to change my son's addiction to alcohol.
Many individuals I have met in support groups and workshops view me as complacent towards my son's addiction. Others have criticized me for "not trying everything in my power", not understanding that my son has to desire change before it occurs. (Though, of course, "others" are not privy to what I have attempted.) Evidently, I do not "fight hard" enough.Whatever that means exactly?
Common knowledge still purports that alcoholics are lazy. I admit to thinking the same on occasion. If my son drinks again, he is a loser, not a fighter. Truthfully, I do not know how it feels to be a substance abuser. But how can an alcoholic be a failure if his/her brain metabolizes alcohol differently?
How many obituaries read, "He fought the disease valiantly" and lost? The deceased did not lose. He became ill. My son did not lose. He became ill. I did not lose. I am helpless to change another's brain. Helpless sounds pathetic. I am far from pathetic. Each day, I strive to live life with joy, meaning and empathy. My son probably feels terrible when he drinks. He grew up with sensitive, educated parents who gave him all the advantages and assistance we could offer. Various treatment modalities were attempted with limited success.
Doctors are ultimately powerless in the face of cancer, mental illness, and addiction. I think physicians have difficulty experiencing the effects of cancer and treatment on their patients. When a doctor has eliminated all the remedies, vanquished in war, he/she tends to leave the scene of the battle. One rarely sees a doctor at the bedside when a patient is dying.
Cancer is one of our curses, like mental illness. People formerly died of common infections, diarrhea, heart disease. We have the ability to save most people from these illnesses, but we will never completely combat nature. This is so clear, as a hurricane batters an archipelago in the Caribbean.
We do not respect nature. Control over numerous aspects of our environment has been gained. And, one day, humans may be able to eradicate cancer and addiction. But we will never overcome the natural world completely.
Acceptance is difficult. I do not sit in a lotus position, repeating the mantra, "Illness come to me, I accept thee." I am frightened of cancer and other debilitating diseases. I seek to live by a basic tenet of Alcoholics Anonymous--turn an illness over to a higher power. But, I am not Mother Theresa. Witnessing a formerly healthy person struck down by a mental or physical illness is agonizing. I turn to anger, instead of sadness and acceptance. Only in the very old, am I able to be at peace with disease.
I am working diligently to live with problems and just be; to not feel required to act, especially when all therapies have been exhausted or refused. My aim is to tolerate negative outcomes or those I did not choose or imagine.
Living with repugnant results is antithetical to our belief that we orchestrate endings and beginnings. People ask, "How are you?" and I am supposed to respond, "fine". The next question is "How are your children?" How does one answer? "I am accepting life as it comes." Maybe, I should use that rejoinder. I believe most people want to hear--"So and so got a promotion in a start-up in California." And "So and so is pregnant with her second child." Some individuals turn their heads or walk away if one answers negatively, a response which is like putting your hands over your ears and yelling, "I can't hear you!".