Alone with Illness

October 1, 2009

The phone rang. Our audio caller ID announced that the call was from a good friend. I knew he was reaching out, perhaps wanting to take a walk along the river in the fading warmth of summer. My chest tightened a little, and I did not move a muscle. I wanted to be left alone. I let the voicemail pick up his call, then tuned out the message. Was this depression? Anxiety? Simple sadness? It did not feel like any of those, actually, but it did not matter. I just felt bad and wanted to spend my day by myself.

My vision loss and crumbling condition were continuing, and I found it all demoralizing. At the same time, I was keenly aware that my old habit of isolating myself, shutting people away during tough times, would not take me anywhere good. Generally, I am a happy person, though periodically I’m in need of retooling.

My cave is dark and damp and will only pull me down. I know that. “Get out of your head,” a doctor I consult from time to time had advised. She is a neuropsychopharmacologist. I have trouble even saying that. “Engage,” she advised. I am good at that, though these days it is something I must force myself to do.

I am not alone in the warehouse. The chronically ill often retreat when times become painful and our self-preservation instinct sets in. We hunker down. It is a defensive maneuver, sometimes an act of desperation, though too often it can be counterproductive. Alienation from body can be complete when, intuitively, a sick person knows recovery is unlikely and faces the demons guarding the permanent condition. Waking up to another day of the same struggle is exhausting.

My friend Larry Fricks has grappled with this pattern at several points in his life. “I moved up to the Appalachian Mountains exactly for that reason,” says Larry, who battles bipolar disorder and now works to help others handle their conditions. “I craved solitude at that time.”

Larry remembers spending countless days in the 1980s making fires and just staring into the flames. On some level, he knew then that he had to step out into the world. “Occasionally, I would venture into the community,” he says. “I found safe social ventures: waitresses and mechanics. We just took it slowly.” Larry says he was too stressed to attend big family Christmases and other holiday gatherings. The man had become a loner. I do not want that to happen to me.

All of us facing similar circumstances have choices to make. At critical moments, we must take charge of our own journey. The walk to the helm can be shaky, but empowering. Don’t be passive. Do it. These are the lessons Larry learned. He knew he could not find his way back alone. He sought help from depression support groups and started getting out and going to meetings. “It took years for me to make a comeback,” Larry says softly, “but I believe I am back.”

My friend’s fall and rise provide a useful measuring stick for me. We have discussed isolation since I wrote my book Strong at the Broken Places, which featured Larry as one of five individuals living with chronic conditions. There is no hierarchy of emotional pain. One person’s suffering hurts as much as anyone else’s. We must watch and learn from each other as we attempt to keep our balance on life’s mighty seas.

The instinct to go it alone can shut us out of our world, separating us from people who care. It can take us down difficult roads. I do not much like myself as the solitary soldier. Isolation offers only loneliness. I did not choose to be in this place, but only my own map will show the way home.

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