Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Inspirational Poetry and the Ugly Side of Chronic Illness

I can't help but cringe when I see poetry designed to inspire and uplift. I often feel as though this belittles (in twee, and often tenuous, rhyming couplets) the strength that it takes to go through difficult situations.

Living with a chronic illness is not pretty. Things that are normally taboo can become a part of everyday life. Diarrhoea, constipation, incontinence, loss of libido, hirsutism (excessive body hair), mental health problems. I find myself concealing the ugly side of my illness from those around me - protecting them from the smells, the mess, the oozing, the unpleasant procedures, the intrusive, bitter, angry and desperate thoughts.

I don't want people to know about the ugly side of my illness. I don't want pity, and I don't want them to feel disgusted by me, or by my illness and its effects. So I present an airbrushed picture of myself to the world. I gloss over the parts of my life that might cause people to feel discomfort, censoring the scenes in which I scream with pain, those in which I sit hunched over a pile of cushions, sick bowl clutched in hand.

I don't want these things to become the focus of my life. I want to fix my thoughts on the things that make life worth living, despite the ugly bits.

But however much I may want to think only about sunshine, lollipops and rainbows, cake, shoes and lipstick, there is urine output to measure, pus to wipe, dislocated and deformed joints to reduce.

These unpleasant things tend not to make nice poetry.

So we write and quote nice poetry that talks about strength and overcoming adversity, and use words like 'battle' and 'trials' to convey, in a rather abstract way, the unmentionable things.

I'm sure this works to inspire some people, but I would really rather not think of my life as a constant battle. I don't believe that I'm being tried or tested. I'm not going to overcome anything. All I can do is live life as well as possible, enjoying the good bits and surviving the bad. There isn't going to be any glory at the end of it all; there are no medals in this game.

Of course, my cynicism about inspirational poetry may also come from the fact that I grew up with an amended version of 'Don't Quit':

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,
When the road you're trudging seems all uphill,
When the funds are low and the debts are high,
And you want to smile but have to cry.
When cares are pressing you down a bit
Don't complain to me - I don't give a sh*t

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