‘You are coping so well,’ remarked my doctor. ‘Every time I see you, you’re always so positive and upbeat.’
‘Maybe I should come in on a bad day!’ I shot back, laughing.
But his words made me think. What does ‘coping’ mean? How do people interpret my happy front or humour as coping—or do they perhaps misinterpret it? Could it be that what appears to be coping on the outside is really a reflection of numbing on the inside?
What does ‘coping’ mean?
People cope with chronic illness in different ways. Some forms of coping—humour, music, prayer, chocolate—are more helpful than others—substance abuse, self-harm, isolation, overachieving. But there is a secret third option that occupies both camps: numbing.
When we have exhausted our coping options, overwhelmed by torrential pain and physical symptoms, our emotions completely tapped, the only thing left is numbness. It is often a last-resort choice, but it can feel like no choice at all.
In some ways, numbing can be helpful. When I recently had surgery on my arm, they put me under so they could do the difficult work with precision. They also put a nerve block in my arm which lasted several weeks to facilitate healing. Numbing can allow our bodies, minds and emotions to breathe, recuperate and recover.
Numbing can allow our selves to breathe, recuperate and recover.
But there’s a dark side to numbing. It can be a part of depression. It can mean we stop caring, even about important things. It can rob us of any enjoyment or feelings in life. It can close us off from people who love us the most, people who could actually help pull us out of the pit of despair. Including God. We can feel forgotten by God, overlooked, abandoned.
At its worst, numbing can rob us of our reasons for living.
Numbing often gets mistaken for coping. When people say, ‘You’re so strong!’ I feel like saying, ‘That’s because the anxiety is so loud I’ve tuned it out, the depression means I have no hope left, and I’m so sick of being sick I can’t even talk about it anymore.’ It’s not strength. It’s survival.
Numbing often gets mistaken for coping.
The theory goes that acceptance is one of the stages of grief (not necessarily the final stage, but one stage we might move in and out of at various times). Sometimes acceptance feels awfully close to resignation. We accept out of sheer exhaustion and forced choice. But even forced-choice numbing or resignation can be necessary for survival. And survival is helpful.
Does that mean we’re ‘coping’? You be the judge of that. In the meantime, I’m going to maximise the helpful coping where I can (especially chocolate), with the understanding that I might need to venture into the world of numbing from time to time. Hopefully, those periods of numbing will be temporary.
All of us need respite from the madness of chronic illness.
It’s not all bad. All of us need respite from the madness that is chronic illness. All of us need things, and people, to help us cope. And sometimes God meets us in those spaces—yes, even the numb ones.
Have you ever gone numb in order to cope? What helps you cope with chronic illness? How has God met you in those spaces? Share your story. Let’s have a countercultural conversation.