On Sickness and in Health

I’m writing this in a waiting room at Georgetown University hospital, where a friend is having an MRI. She’s been healthy her whole life, but in the past couple of months has endured a whole catalogue of physical and emotional ills — stomach pain, severe indigestion, back pain, anxiety, insomnia. This morning, she said to me, “I’d give anything to just have a break from this constant discomfort. I can’t even remember what it’s like to feel well.”


As someone who’s fortunate enough to have enjoyed consistently good health [knock knock], I try to remember and appreciate that fact on a regular basis. The only time I’ve suffered from chronic pain or illness was five years ago following knee surgery, when I couldn’t walk without pain for nearly a year. I wondered if I’d ever feel 100% healthy again, and remember thinking, much as my friend is now, “If only I could feel the way I did before.” My knee did heal eventually, and I do have a newfound appreciation for having functioning joints. But still, having good health is like breathing oxygen — you don’t notice or appreciate it until it’s been taken away.

Which makes it all the more discombobulating when the people around you start having chronic health problems. When you’re in your twenties, it’s a real shock when a peer gets ill. Over time, as we age, more people have bad shit happen to them — in my close circle, this includes such illnesses as postpartum depression, severe chronic back pain, various forms of cancer, multiple sclerosis… and the list goes on.


It’s interesting to see how each person deals with his or her health issues, and how that, in turn, can affect recovery (or lack thereof). I don’t know about you, but I’ve had several friends who, after having not much of anything go wrong for their first three decades, suddenly endured astonishing runs of ill fortune — not all of them health-related, but there’s nearly always some kind of health component in the mix. In most cases, these friends have become fatalistic about their futures, developing an expectation that some new bad thing is out there waiting to befall them. Somehow, invariably, it does, and a cycle starts whirling, perpetuating itself.

One friend endured such a cycle for years, until finally finding the strength to pull herself out of it. She took steps to end a relationship that was bad for her, made a decision to improve her fitness, began pursuing interests that she’d left on the back burner years ago. I’m not sure whether she felt better first and then began getting her life together, or whether she began getting her life together and that in turn made her feel better, but whatever the case, her improvement over the last year has been dramatic. Some of the steps she took were painful, but in the end, they paid off in greatly improved emotional and physical health.


Which brings me back to my friend from paragraph 1. Most of our mutual friends are concerned far less about her physical health than about her emotional health. She has changed from a cheery, energetic, fun person to a person who can’t stop thinking, talking and fretting about her health. Yet until she can see beyond her physical discomfort and begin to expect to heal, the anxiety she feels will continue to manifest itself in her physical ailments, some of which were almost certainly the product of stress to begin with. Where will her cycle end?

Anyway, she’ll be out of her MRI soon, so I should wrap this up. It’s a little unfocused, I know, and I apologize for that. I guess what I want to say is that I hope everyone’s feeling okay these days. And if you are, maybe take a moment to appreciate it; sitting here in this waiting room, I know I am.

18 responses to “On Sickness and in Health”

  1. Dave says:

    Yikes. Best wishes to your friend. Chronic health problems suck.

    I like the dusty smiley face, however.

  2. Dave says:

    Lisa, it seems you’ve killed the blog.

  3. LP says:

    No – It just needs to believe it can get better.

  4. LP says:

    la la la la la la la.

  5. brooke says:

    I hope everything comes out right with your friend. I agree with Dave, chronic health problems blow chunks. I’ve had a back injury I got when training for a race about 8 years ago that has never quite felt right. It used to get really bad, but somehow over the years I’ve been able to manage the pain and it’s not so bad these days.

    I also agree with your sentiment regarding how people confront their health problems – it can make all the difference in the world. Friends and people who can be counted on also makes a huge difference – so I both admire and appreciate you being there for your pal.

    And that smiley face is fresh…

  6. brooke says:

    P.S. Why people be all reticent and stuff on the blog?

  7. cynthia says:

    Lisa, I am sorry to hear about your friend. I hope all goes well. I had a friend go through it a couple of years ago and I know all the support helps. Good luck.

  8. LT says:

    Not reticent, Brooke, just busy. And when you’re busy and your friend’s friend is sick and in the hospital, you just can’t drop a fluffy or flippant comment.

    Lisa, what’s the update? Is your pal alright? Does she know that the great and kind god of Whatsit is watching over her? A couple of us recently found out that a Westcoast/world traveling friend is needing surgery for cancerous tumors.

    May the Whatsit god spread health and healing to all…or, if you can’t get behind such spiritual interpretations, simply think some good thoughts.

  9. Tim says:

    Yeah, what Tremain said . . . busy! Hope all is well with your friend, Parrish. Do let us know, please.

  10. Kate The Great says:

    Sorry. I was sleeping. It’s my new hobby, doncha know.

    Thank you for the small reminder of good health. I stood at the bus stop in no pain, but with a little guilt that I didn’t help the girl who asked me for a mop on my way out of the apartment complex. Her toilet exploded, but I had to go to work.

    I wish I was like you, Lisa. Sitting in the waiting room as a support. I wish I had called my supervisor and told him I’d be a little late, then lent the girl my mop and some sponges. Then I wouldn’t even be making this comment.

    But then you’d all be wondering even more why it’s so dead here. Our blog had a bout of ill health.

  11. Bryan says:

    add my best wishes to your friend.

    and i hope all those anti-ER people who’ve bitched it up on that other thread recognize that we have sensitive posts about chronic pain too, to balance out all the evil, heartless, money grubbing doctors we have writing for us!

  12. Dave says:

    Lisa, what do you have to say to the Susan Sontag argument about illness and willpower/attitude mentioned here?

    And Southland residents: Are you all keeping yourselves smoke- and fire-free?

  13. Miller says:

    lisa, your post hits pretty close to home right now, but for reasons other than physical health. i have 3 relatives and 2 friends who have been evacuated from their homes due to the fires. as a result, my teeny-tiny apartment has become a communal resting/eating/sleeping place for many of them, so i have a new-found appreciation for how lucky i am to have this home, a home i previously saw as a dump. i’m just hoping the people i care about don’t become fatalistic about their futures, as you’ve described, if anything should actually be lost in the fires.

    and dave, keeping some-free in southern cali is nearly impossible right now. i’ve felt like i’ve been smoking one very long cigarette for the past few days. i even saw someone at school yesterday who was wearing a surgical mask.

  14. Miller says:

    I meant “smoke-free”

  15. Dave says:

    Yikes, Miller. Stay healthy, and good luck hosting your mini evac center.

  16. LP says:

    Dave – I haven’t read Sontag’s essays on illness and AIDS, but it seems to me she’s saying essentially the same thing — that the way you choose to approach an illness can significantly affect how well or poorly you recover from it. Changing the perception of a disease from being a “curse” to being an essentially physical phenomenon gives one more power over it, rather than the other way around.

    My friend’s still feeling pretty rotten, but I’ll post an update when things change. (I almost said when/if, but decided to go with the positive thinking. Norman Vincent Peale would be proud.) Also, I appreciate the suggestions that I did something so great for my friend, but ya know, I’m unemployed now and it’s easy to make time for something like this. I know of many other instances of TGWers going above and beyond for their friends in need, even very recently, and so kudos to them. You know who you are. And you, too, Miller – good luck with the full house.

  17. Wayne says:


    Half the people in my area (north San Diego county) had to evacuate, and everyone else is staying inside to avoid breathing the smoke. My neighborhood is far enough away from the fires that we won’t need to evacuate unless the winds really pick up. There is a great new system here (reverse 911) that generates automatic calls to everyone who has to evacuate. This is good because many people went to bed on Sunday with absolutely no idea of what was going to happen early Monday.

    The fires spread really fast because (1) the dry hot Santa Ana winds from Utah and Nevada were blowing at really high speeds, (2) the area is in a bad drought this year, (3) the year before was very wet which allowed lots of vegetation to grow. Temperatures are over 15 degrees above what they should be in late October, and the humidity is super low.

    Schools and universities in the county will be closed for at least a week.

    I have learned lots of useful stuff like how to open my garage door if the power goes out, and i need to evacuate, and how not to use wipers to clean ash off windows (it scratches the glass).

    I have been really lucky not to have to evacuate. Once in the late 90s there was a fire that started while I was at work. I tried to drive home to my apartment, but I was blocked by a fleet of fire trucks. I could not get to my apartment to save anything.That night I stayed at friends and kept calling my home phone to see if the answering machine would pick up. It did, so I figured the apartment had not burned down yet. The next day I was allowed back. The fire came right up to vegetation about 10 feet from my porch, but fortunately the apartment survived. Unfortunately though, many homes in my neighborhood were completely destroyed. But it was nothing compared to the current fires.

  18. […] on the phone with a friend who is breaking down mentally, emotionally and physically. This is not the first time you have heard of this […]