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“My Disease”

June 7, 2011 10:20 pm

I’ve heard people say “I have a disease that’s trying to kill me” … According to my official, professional diagnoses, I have three diseases that are trying to kill me. The other two are more direct about it than the alcoholism, though.

–a comment I recently made at an AA meeting

No one says my cancer wants to kill me. No one negotiates with cancer, really. I guess that’s the difference. Our addictions and other psychiatric disorders live deep in our minds and souls and brains and hearts and everywhere else we lack the knowledge and understanding to set the boundaries, to post the Keep Out signs that say, That is you, and This is me. Even when our insides are riddled with invading tumors, we never lose sight that You are cancer, I am me. But how much of me is not alcoholism? Bipolar? Borderline? Is it I who can’t get enough of anything? Or my addiction? I who maps the trickles and estuaries that eventually fill the ocean, who examines every particle of shit-laden dirt at eye level? Or my bipolar disorder? I who feels so strongly the dark, bloody tragedy and infinite, fleeting laughter, who so loves (even as I loathe) drama that I manufacture it when circumstance does not supply enough? Or is that my borderline personality disorder? I have a disease that’s trying to kill me. Or I am trying to kill me.

I am thinking of this while I am planning my probably post-nursing life.

I am thinking of this while watching a movie (Biutiful) with my daughter in which Javier Bardem plays a hustler dying of prostate cancer, leaving behind two children and a bipolar alcoholic wife.

I am thinking of this when my daughter asks if I think it’s weird that she doesn’t greet passers by on the street. “No,” I say. “Lots of people don’t do that.” “You do it,” she says. “I do it for the reason that polite people do it … Politeness is not about being nice and inviting people into your life, it’s all about setting boundaries, ‘Hello, how are you? That is you, outside, and this is me, and you’re not coming in.'”

I am thinking of this when my daughter and I discuss my parents’ upcoming 50th Wedding Anniversary celebration. “Even if I got married again today,” I say, “I would have to live to be 90 to even make that possible, and I really don’t want to do that.” Plus, I’m never getting married again, no fucking way, which my daughter thinks is a reasonable enough position for me to take at this particular time, but not forever. But I say, that’s forever. Shoot me if I ever think differently.

I am thinking of this remembering a conversation with a friend from literary grad school. Who wouldn’t want to live forever? she said. “Not me,” I said. Life is pain, with tiny, ephemeral pieces of happiness, like bits of paper escaping a fire, here and gone, and the fire rages and dies, and we’re left with carbon ash for the rest of eternity. Pretty much.

I am thinking how many times I have wished I were dying of something that was not remotely my fault, something that would evoke sympathy, not blame, and allow me to wrap things up quietly, let the rest go in peace, and shuffle off without so much as a cluck of the tongue or shake of the head from the peanut gallery. Of course, as a woman with whom I once shared lives pointed out, everything would likely be my fault anyway, because everything is my responsibility. Smoke, eat junk, don’t exercise, don’t manage stress effectively, don’t put in a Herculean (or is it Sisyphian?) effort in therapy, don’t go to the doctor or the dentist … cancer, heart attack, suicide, it’s all the same.

I am thinking how when I was young, my disease told me,

You’re going to be something extraordinary!

Those other saps are just suckers. The rubes don’t know how to really live.

Everything is shit, but the rest of these vapid fools don’t have the capacity to realize it.

More, more, more is your birthright!

Now it tells me

Yeah, you’re fucked, buddy. Past your prime now.

Don’t touch that penny if tails are up! Unless you know for sure it’s yours. Do you? Do not step on a crack, do not break your mother’s back.

Look at how happy everyone else is. You really blew your chance.

Satisfied, Tantalus? Of course not. There will never be enough to slake your thirst. You’re my bitch.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. June 8, 2011 1:10 am 1:10 am

    i like your description of how our interpretive lens of reality is shifty and not always to b trusted. keep on!

  2. June 8, 2011 2:22 pm 2:22 pm

    grrr … must you always put a positive spin on everything i say, doc? just kidding. thank you.

  3. June 9, 2011 9:44 pm 9:44 pm

    It’s a totally legitimate question. The only difference is that I am me, with my past stuff and my genetic predilections and so forth, and they are themselves with theirs. Difference in moral obligation or objective potential and that sort of thing? None. If you think I’m doing nothing but complaining and feeling sorry for myself, you once again misread me, all through your own subjectivity. Which is why, although your question may well be non-judgmental, I in my subjectivity and filtering your comment through my memories of our past, find it difficult to accept that this is a non-judgmental question. Which is, I’m sure, more about me than it is about you. Good thing I’m working on my 4th Step.

  4. permalink
    June 11, 2011 6:33 pm 6:33 pm

    Just recently, I’ve started thinking of my alcoholism as a symptom of my BPD/Bipolar.
    Our culture teaches us blame, and since to many alcohol is sinful then it is something we have control over. Cancer is not caused by our sin so we don’t need to have control. I think maybe we can have more control over diseases like Cancer by changing our way of thinking. Bottom line to my mind is there should be no blame assigned to any of them, but we need to be responsible for all of them.

  5. June 12, 2011 12:02 am 12:02 am

    I agree with you about responsibility instead of blame. The place of blame in BPD is much more contentious right now than it is in addiction (although belief that addicts are simply “weak willed” is still common). It is viewed as such a behavioral disorder and a deficit of maturity rather than a disease, an imbalance, whatever it may be … partly because there is still so much we don’t know about it.

    Personally, I would be careful about designating my alcoholism a symptom of anything else … often, addiction begins with a genetic predisposition that separates those who can control use from those who can’t … genetics = “abnormal” physical expression of those genes, which is further developed by the effects of the alcohol/drugs on the brain cells. To simplify it, real alcoholics are real alcoholics for the rest of their lives. That’s what I believe, anyway. There is a ton of overlap among all of these disorders, though, so it’s mostly just a matter of semantics.

  6. June 20, 2011 3:09 pm 3:09 pm

    I agree on the overlap and it being a matter of semantics.
    Alcoholism as genetic predisposition, as self medication, as a symptom of something else – it’s unlikely to be one thing only to the exclusion of all others.
    As for the wish to go in an “un-responsible” way, to get ill and get sympathy for it because it’s not your fault, I also sometimes have a similar wish. It doesn’t go so far as wishing to die, it’s the fantasy of a temporary incapacitating illness which would allow me to “let the rest go in peace” as you say but just for a little while, to have an excuse – a non blamable one – to relinquish all control and worry, to let go and regress.
    I wonder if it’s a bit like the wish to die, but without the despair.

  7. June 22, 2011 4:49 pm 4:49 pm

    Sorry, I realised after I posted it that my comment is a bit random. Thing is I was struck by your post, and felt like leaving a comment. But the thing that stayed with me most is not the wish for an illness, or the responsibility issue.
    It is your exchange with your daughter regarding greeting people and politeness as a way to set a boundary for yourself, to mark the border of where you finish and where the other starts. Stuff for reflection.

    • July 16, 2011 8:52 am 8:52 am

      Not at all random. Apropos, actually. I like your comments. Let me know if you have any further thoughts on my “theory of politeness.” I’d like to hear them.

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