Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Laughter is the Best Medicine

As I mentioned yesterday, I've signed up for 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 probably be including this introductory paragraph at the beginning of every post, so that anyone who's checking in will have that background info

Today's assignment: Laughter is the Best Medicine.  In honor of April Fool’s Day, is there something that always makes you laugh? A memory, favorite joke?

Everyone goes through challenges on occasion, and everyone gets sick once in a while.  When that happens to most people, there is comfort in the knowledge that this, too, shall pass.  For those of us with chronic illnesses, however, it never really does pass.  We don't simply "get better" after a few days on antibiotics and bed rest.  The pain and stiffness, dizziness and nausea, fatigue and malaise stick around for weeks, months, or years at a time.  Even with dozens of medications, our best hope is to go into remission for a while.  Even then,  it's only a question of when, not if, our next flare will come.

If that sounds depressing, let me tell you ... it is.  For many, depression comes soon after the other diagnoses - not as a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, but as a natural reaction to life-altering news, physical suffering, and lifestyle loss that comes with it.  If we're going to get through the next thirty or forty (or more) years, we've got to find a healthier way to deal with it.

A while back, I wrote a post about how I use laughter as my greatest form of stress relief.  I explained:
When I'm frustrated, I laugh.  When I'm aggravated, I laugh.  When I'm overwhelmed, I laugh.  When I am completely exasperated, I laugh.  As I tell people, I laugh ... so I don't cry, scream, or hurt someone.
When I think about living the rest of my life with Fibromyalgia and Rheumatoid Arthritis (not to mention Migraines, Hashimoto's Thyroiditis, GERD, Erosive Esophagitis, Chronic Sinusitis, Insomnia, IBS, and all the other problems caused by all the medication), I feel all those emotions and more.  It's absolutely imperative, then, to find reasons to laugh ... even when things don't seem so funny.

The first - and best - example of this comes from about 20 years ago, when I was away at college.  My gastrointestinal system had become problematic after a third grade teacher wouldn't allow us to use the bathroom ten years prior (long story - perhaps another day), and a developing eating disorder surely did not help the situation.  I was used to having abdominal pain on a regular basis, so when it came on so severely, I knew something was wrong.  I called my mom, and then headed to the nearest emergency room.

Unfortunately, my mother was unable to meet me at the hospital.  She had just undergone surgery for thyroid cancer, and was still recovering.  Luckily, my aunt and uncle lived just ten minutes away, so my mom called them.

My aunt met me in the waiting room, and went with me when they called me in.  We still had quite a while before the doctor actually examined me, so my aunt had to just sit and watch me suffer.  I was doubled over in pain, caught between a cry and a scream at every moment.  My aunt left to go to the bathroom, and couldn't wait for me to look up when she came back.  With her eyeliner, she had drawn a horizontal line across her throat, and a series of vertical lines across the width of that line.  I looked at her, and my mouth dropped.  She said, "I wanted you to feel like your mother was here," and we both laughed.  A LOT.

Yes, it was a sick joke.  Yes, it was twisted.  Yes, it was in poor taste.  But in that moment, in that pain, frustration, and fear, it was absolutely hilarious!  We laughed so hard we cried, and as the pains kept coming, I cried so hard I laughed.  In fact, we laughed so much that when he finally did come to see me, the doctor didn't believe that I was really in pain.  He wanted to send me home, but we insisted he examine me to see what was wrong.

Looking back, I realize that this was my first experience with the most common - and most harmful - misconception of invisible illness.  People believe what they see, so if they don't see what's wrong, they assume that nothing is.  This can be damaging when doctors are so dismissive: research shows that early and aggressive treatment is most helpful for slowing the progression of autoimmune arthritis diseases, but that cannot happen when it takes years to get a diagnosis.  Fortunately, we are speaking up, and the medical community is starting to take notice.  We must continue to advocate - both as individuals speaking with our own doctors, and as a group through dedicated organizations.

It can be even more devastating when this assumption comes from our loved ones, coworkers, and friends.  When they say "but you don't look sick," what we hear is "I don't believe you."  That can be more painful than all the diseases combined.  Quite often, though, what they truly mean is that they don't understand.  We can't really blame them for that - we don't really understand it ourselves.  While of course we will continue to hope that others won't doubt us anymore, what we must do is talk about it.  No one can explain how some of these diseases work ... but we can explain how we feel, and what we go through.  (If you're struggling to find the words, I highly recommend The Spoon Theory, by Christine Miserando).  With that basic understanding, we can work together to find ways to enjoy the life we have ... and most of all, to laugh!

**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!