The headlines read “Oliver Stone Hails Michael Douglas’ Brave Cancer Fight” and “Brave Brett Michaels wins Celebrity Apprentice.” Even as Belgian action movie actor Jean-Claude Van Damme recovers [this week] from his recent heart attack, I’m sure his friends are saying he is being brave about even the admission of this attack, which came just one day after his 50th birthday while filming a kickboxing movie.
Are those who suffer from stage-four cancer, such as actor Michael Douglas, brave? Are those of us who live with the chaos of chronic illness, such as musician Brett Michaels, who is one of 23 million insulin-dependent diabetics, brave? Are these individuals more courageous than actors Patrick Swayze or Farrah Fawcett, who lost their battles to cancer last year?
Does our society create grand expectations that exemplify bravery and courage as the only acceptable response to an illness crisis? Celebrities coping with health crises are just like the rest of us. They get up each morning and put one foot in front of the other, whether that means an unpleasant medical treatment or going to the grocery store–but these actions are typically photographed and labeled as signs of “bravery.”
I am sympathetic to the friends of celebrities who appear as a guest on a television shows such as The View and are asked to reveal how their celebrity friend with illness is “really doing.” There is no appropriate answer. If someone is truly a friend, as Danny Devito is to Michael Douglas, he is not going to say, “He feels terrible and isn’t looking too hot either.” Instead he will comment on how brave his friend is. It’s a considerate response to an awkward question, and it does contain a hint of truth.
Is there an alternative to being brave?
While there are tools online such as an illness symptom checker, there are few ways to understand how one is coping emotionally with a disease. If those of us with illnesses were to sit in bed and sob uncontrollably, how long would it take until our friends stopped calling us brave and said we were a basket case? Can a good cry be a sign of bravery, too? Who among us is not brave while fighting a disease that threatens to take away our quality of life or life itself?
What exactly is bravery?
The definition of the word “brave” includes possessing or displaying courage, being able to face and deal with danger or fear without flinching, and making a fine appearance.
I believe anyone has dealt with the fears of a health crisis certainly has moments of bravery. But let us not forget that emotions are fragile at times; allowing ourselves to be vulnerable and let some emotions through is not only acceptable but a healthy coping tool. Tears do not signify a lack of bravery.
When our loved ones see us look the doctor in the eye and ask, “How long do I have to live?” they are seeing us “make a fine appearance” as the definition of bravery possesses. They may not see the tears that fall uncontrollably in the lonely moments at 3 AM. Brett Michaels’ Rock of Love show may have been a successful indulgence, but when he was fighting for his life, it was his daughter’s fear of growing up without him that “gave me this unsinkable strength,” he declared on Oprah on May 19, 2010. “It gave me this amazing courage to want to survive.”
How does one show bravery in the midst of illness?
In 2009 I spent eight days in the hospital when I contracted the flesh-eating bacteria in an ankle wound that quickly spread up my leg. To be honest, I felt brave at times. I did not shed a single tear. My husband brought my then-five-year-old son to the hospital to play with the electric bed and eat mac-and-cheese from the hospital cafeteria. I gritted my teeth every couple of hours when another medical professional would visit my room with the intent of causing some kind of pain.
So, within the context of the definition of bravery, I made a fine appearance. I don’t know if I possessed courage, but I tried to display it. When faced with danger (like the daily debriding of the wound) I did my best not to flinch. But what choice did I have? The needles, IVs, MRIs, and pain medication disbursement were not in my control. I tried to be brave, but most of the time I was just choosing to “act” brave, despite my fear of the procedures and pain, frustration of the circumstances, and even panic over the possibility of losing a limb or even my life.
Can faking bravery can be enough to get us through?
In conclusion, let us remember that bravery can be a choice. Even if we do not feel courage, we can still seek to display it, we can attempt to face danger without flinching, and we can make a fine appearance. At the same time, let us not forget that we are human beings who were designed to feel fear, need affirmation and loving support, and shed tears. For myself, this is intertwined with my faith in God and knowing when to surrender to the emotions and when to surrender them over. Finding the right balance between putting on a brave front, and being true to our own emotions is, I believe, one of the best coping tools we can discover for the journey of chronic illness.
Bravery comes in many forms, not all of them gallant or daunting tasks. Michael Douglas’ films list is likely not important to him at the moment. Despite side effects of treatment for stage-four cancer, he recently walked his daughter to school, reveling in the moment that he was able to do so and wanting to treasure the simple moments. His bravery came in venturing out into the public eye, where his appearance and strength could be observed and discussed. Each of us must decide our own definition of bravery, and for those of us who know how much we suffer in silence, it may be as simple as making a fine appearance and then being our true selves around those we love and trust the most.
About the Author: Lisa Copen is the founder of National Invisible Chronic Illness Awareness Week and Rest Ministries, the largest Christian organization that specifically serves the chronically ill. This article was formerly featured at the Huffington Post and received 245 comments before comments were closed. See some of the interesting discussion at the Huff Post.
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Taking a little time to come with ideas for how to handle a crisis is a valuable exercise for anyone living with a chronic, invisible illness. After all, to live with a chronic illness is to know that a crisis will come your way at some point. This list comprises the things I’ve learned about how to cope when life throws you a curve ball. As I’ve matured and had to learn how to deal with changes brought about by chronic illness, it has become easier and easier to cope with things I never thought I could handle.
By focusing on breathing I can keep myself in the moment and stop my brain from running wild with all the “what ifs.” It’s always the best place to start when something goes wrong.
(2) Focus on being rational and maintaining perspective
It’s in my nature to start flipping out during a crisis. It takes a concerted effort to keep myself thinking rationally. I do my best to keep reminding myself that I can handle whatever has been thrown my way and that freaking out does nothing but make me upset. The older I get the easier I find it to do this. I used to completely lose it and go into hysterical crying with any crisis. I still do that sometimes, but much less often.
In addition to my husband, parents, and closest friends, I’m part of a fantastic, close knit message board of women who provide the most amazing support both day-to-day and in a crisis. It’s like our own little Internet family. I don’t know what I would do without them. The online migraine and chronic illness community is an incredible source of support, too.
Discussing your situation with people who truly understand because they are living the same thing is amazing. Turning to other people also often helps me discover options and solutions I would never have thought of on my own.
(4) Ask for help
This is hard for me. I don’t like to need to ask for help. I want to be independent. But when push comes to shove sometimes it would be downright stupid to suffer silently when someone who loves you could do something to make things easier for you. Not everyone is lucky enough to have a supportive family or group of friends. Since I do, I should let them help me. They want to.
I have a scary tendency to chastise myself for any part I think I might have had in bringing about a crisis. For instance, if I’d only tried harder I wouldn’t have lost my job. Never mind that I was dealing with three years of constant migraines when I quit working. It’s much easier to deal with a crisis if I can have compassion toward myself and remember that most crises are just a fluke rather than something I deserve for being a bad person.
In conclusion. . .
Coping with a crisis is and probably always will be hard. But with a better idea of what helps me push through I have more confidence in my ability to survive just about anything. You can do the same by coming up with an approach that suits your needs and tendencies before you need to cope with your next crisis.
About the Author: Diana Lee lives with chronic migraine disease, occipital neuralgia, diabetes, polycystic ovary syndrome and depression. She blogs about living with chronic pain, migraines and depression at her site, Somebody Heal Me, and interacts with other patients on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.
She is a licensed attorney, but is currently on disability because of the frequency and intensity of her chronic intractable migraines. She is married and mommy to two furbabies, Felix the cat and Maisy the Jack Russell Terrier. She loves reading, mindfulness meditation, watching college football and basketball, reality TV, laughing and being an advocate for other patients.
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