Can chronic illness make you selfish?
Those of us who are taking steps to manage an energy-limiting, chronic illness will know that this involves both making difficult changes in our lives and accepting that this is a necessity. When these changes can include taking a break from or giving up a career, downsizing property, foregoing a social life, giving up certain hobbies, having to make do with a lower income, considerable feelings of resentment can arise.
My strongest feelings of resentment spring from my dependence on my mother for so much help. I am certainly not the only adult who has been forced to live with parents. The usual scenario is of a graduate who cannot afford to get on the property ladder so moves back into the parental home. My initial reason for living with my mother as an adult was my status as a full-time working single parent. Now it is because I rely on my mother to do the shopping, housework, cooking, washing as well as educating my daughter at home. I know I am extremely lucky to have someone close to me whom I trust to do these things . I am very grateful. Nevertheless, I find myself feeling angry that I am not functioning as a “proper adult” and, nonsensically, this anger with myself is sometimes directed at my mother.
It can manifest as stroppiness, sarcastic retorts, snapping, retreating to my room to be on my own – in short, the kind of behaviour you would expect from a sullen teenager. I am not proud of this. My irritability was at a height a few years ago when I was suffering from depression – it is one of the symptoms. Thankfully, that irritability has gone since I have recovered from that particular disorder. I thought that I had returned to being the nice, reasonable person that I considered myself to be.
However, a few days ago when I was doing one of my regular mindfulness exercises, I had a damascene moment. The series of meditations had moved on to a new exercise. The question I was to ask myself in this exercise was, “Remember the last time you did something, said something or gave something pleasant for or to someone. How did they react? How did you feel?” I was asked to reflect on this feeling. Doing my best to remain focused on my breath and not let my thoughts run riot, I trawled through my mind looking for an appropriate example. I could not remember the last time I had done anything nice for anyone. Eventually, I recalled that last week I had held the car door open for a family friend and she had said, “Thanks.” That was it.
I could not remember the last time I had done anything particularly nice for my family. The previous day I had played “Picking Up Pairs” with my daughter. Big whoop – I had played with my child. To quote Chris Rock, “you’re supposed to, you dumb motherf***er!” What did I want, a cookie?
I sat and reflected on this. Mindfulness tells you to avoid any judgemental thoughts but I could not help thinking that I’d been a horrible, selfish person for a long time and had not even realised. It seemed that other people were doing nice things for me all the time, yet I was not doing anything nice for them. Could I blame the illness? Not really. It was my response to being ill that was to blame.
Later that day, I did something that I hadn’t done in a long time. I gave my mum a hug. Spontaneously. She was almost moved to tears and told me how much it meant to her. I felt immensely glad that such a small gesture had comforted my mum, who has been beside herself with worry about me, but simultaneously sad that it was such a big deal to her. Her response highlighted how selfish and introspective I had allowed the illness to make me.
Now, I did a tiny thing and it made a big difference. If your illness places physical restrictions on you, which prevent you from doing things for others, you can at least tell someone that you appreciate them.
Of course, I am not saying that we ought to apologise for our illness or push ourselves to do things that we are not fit to do, out of guilt. All I mean is, it does not take much effort to show the important people in your life that you care about them, in what you might consider to be little ways. It will mean a great deal to them. And it starts by ending the anger with yourself.
If you have any thoughts on this post, your comments are most welcome. I will reply.