Sunday, April 27, 2014

Book Report: The Picture of Dorian Gray

I'm really excited to be participating in the WEGO Health Health Activist Writer's Month Challenge.  I'm hoping that the challenge factor will motivate me to write more often (every day this month, in fact!), and that that will develop into a habit of writing regularly after the month is over.  More importantly, I'm hoping that by sharing my experiences, thoughts, and insights about living with chronic and invisible illnesses, I'll be able to bring comfort to someone struggling with the same issues.
*Note - I'll be including this introductory paragraph at the beginning of every post, so that anyone who's checking in for the first time will have that background info.  If you come back another day (and I hope you do), you can skip this part and jump straight to the day's post, below!

Today's assignment: Book Report.  What’s your favorite book and how can you tie to your health or life?

Though I haven't read it in years, the book that immediately came to mind was The Picture of Dorian Gray, by Oscar Wilde.  The story follows Dorian, a young and stunningly beautiful man, and a portrait of him, painted by a well-known artist, Basil Hallward.  The painting has a profound effect on Dorian, and as we will come to see, he has an effect on the painting itself.

Dorian is much admired for his youth, wealth, culture, and beauty.  The artist Basil Hallward uses him as a model for many paintings, but creates one that is a simple, life-like portrait.  Though everyone else sees the latest piece as simply a masterpiece, Dorian feels that as he naturally withers with age, this painting will come to mock him as a reflection of what he once was.  He wishes – curses – that he could keep his youth and good looks, and let the painting age for him instead.  His wish comes true, and he soon has to hide the painting so no one else will see the changes.

Over the years, the portrait reflects not only Dorian’s true age, but his true character, as well.  He comes to live a life of pure hedonism, with no regard for the feelings of others around him.  As he is cruel, it is reflected in the painting.  As he ages, as he sins, as he hurts others, it is all reflected in the painting … yet he remains young and beautiful.

This can easily be seen as a reflection of life with an invisible illness.  It is not our actions that turn ugly, but our biological systems.  We have pain, nausea, inflammation, and fatigue that no one can see.  We have problems with nervous, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, and gynecological systems that no one can see.  No matter how bad we feel, no matter what damage is being done on the inside, we still appear young, healthy, and beautiful, just like Dorian Gray. 

Of course, there is some benefit to this.  Though not to the extent of Dorian, we all have a bit of vanity, and always try to look our best.   In some ways it is a relief that we “still look good,” as we are often told: if we looked as bad as we felt most days, surely that would scare people away!  It does, however, eventually become problematic for Dorian (I won’t give it away – go read the book!); likewise, it can be problematic for us, as well.

Invisible illnesses can often be difficult to diagnose.  Doctors look for signs to help them determine our disease, but when we don’t show any, and even our labs show nothing (as is the case with fibromyalgia), they have nothing physical to go on.  All they have is our word, but sadly they seldom take that as a fact.  The longer we go without an accurate diagnosis, the longer we go without any treatment.

The other problem with invisible illness is that because we look healthy, those around us don’t always believe that we are as sick as we are.  They see us as lazy, as drama queens, or as hypochondriacs.  They think we are looking for attention or looking to get out of responsibility.  This can harm our relationships with friends, family, and coworkers.  It can affect our jobs, as employers think we are faking it when we call in sick or request special accommodations. 

Oscar Wilde’s great work shows that things – and people – aren’t always what they seem.  There is so much more to who we are than what we look like.  It is a dilemma we face on a daily basis: we want to present our best selves, but still need people to believe that we are not doing as well as we appear.  We just hope that those who truly care about us will take the time to ask questions if they don’t understand … and most of all, will believe what we say, despite how we look.

**If you like what you read, tell a friend.  In fact, tell me, too - post a comment below!  If you don't ... well ... I'm all for honesty, but ... please be gentle!