Why Me? Thoughts on Having a Chronic Illness

We’ve all asked the question at some point. Why me? Why did I get rheumatoid arthritis, juvenile arthritis, migraine, Crohn’s, psoriasis, etc.? It is an existential howl of despair into the darkness, asking that most fundamental of questions. Why did this happen to me?

Closely on the heels of that question follows the expanded version: what did I do? What didn’t I do? Is this some sort of punishment? Because as hard as that is, it’s the only thing that makes a certain sense in this new reality where nothing makes sense. 

Is it punishment?
When you are in extreme pain, when your chronic illness prevents you from doing what you need to do, when you feel like death warmed over — that has to be a punishment, doesn’t it? When something feels like torture — and the pain of many chronic illnesses often do — it has to be as a result of being guilty of something, being judged, sentenced, punished. Doesn’t it?

Only those who have done something very bad indeed are sentenced to a lifetime of misery. Is this the result of a vengeful god getting up on the wrong side of the bed or, for the less religious among us, maybe you didn’t exercise, quit smoking, eat right, or any one of the many things we are supposed to do, but so often don’t.

The domino effect is not over. Because once you start thinking that maybe this is a punishment, the self-loathing is inevitable. It may not be at the forefront of your consciousness, but it’s there. It’s so easy to say that you shouldn’t think that way, but how can you not? You did something bad for which you’re being punished with a chronic illness, ipso facto it’s your fault. You did this to yourself. So you proceed to beat yourself up for anything and everything, it becomes a habit, and you add your own punishment to the pile already dumped upon you.

It’s no wonder people with chronic illnesses have a higher rate of depression.

From the other side
But here’s an interesting question to add to the list: why not me? Which is not to say that you or I did something very bad for which we must be punished, but rather that this is the twin to the other, the why and why-not conjoined from conception. They are the yin and yang to one another, swirling together, expanding and contracting, always the two. 

Why not me? What makes me so special that I deserve to be spared this pain, this illness? With the underlying add-on of "someone else does not."

And this pokes right at that other thing I didn’t mention yet. The sense of unfairness that comes after the why. Because that’s the whole sentence, isn’t it — why did this happen to me? It’s not fair!

When I (metaphorically) stomped my foot and exclaimed that there was nothing fair about being a teenager with juvenile arthritis and in a wheelchair, my father would ask “whoever promised you life would be fair?” It never failed to bring me out of my mood, to joke back that I distinctly remembered a fairy godmother standing over my crib and doing just that. Promising me that life would be fair.

Truth be told, we all expect that to some extent, don’t we? Perhaps not consciously, but when something happens, something big and life altering, something not-good, it feels unfair. We try to be good people, try to live in such a way that we leave the world better than we found it. Does that not deserve the reward of fairness?

Except, contrary to the way we feel it should be, no one actually promised us life would be fair. Which gets back to the question of why not you?

Finding peace
After coming up on five decades of living with RA, I’ve gone through the gamut. I’ve asked all the questions and never received an answer. The why me doesn’t do me any good, but neither does the why not me. It took years, but I finally figured it out. Found the reason that this disease chose me.

Shit happens.

I apologize for the choice of word, but there really is no other way to say it. Sometimes, it just happens. Other than the science behind it, which is not comforting at all, there is no reason. It is not a punishment for your sins, or a consequence of not eating enough broccoli.

It just is.

And that is almost impossible to comprehend. So let’s not try. Let us just accept. Because in acceptance of its perfect now-ness, its purity, lies the answer. To leave the agonizing quest for a reason behind, to accept that sometimes — say it with me — shit happens, gives you the freedom to move forward.


Caroline said…
I periodically allow me to once in a while succumb to the why me crap. I can't allow the thought that my health has overrun my life to take over. I will never be healthy again. Ever. I know it. It really sucks. But its the way things are now. I have to look at the good things in my life.
Anonymous said…
I'm 67 and was diagnosed with RA and mixed connective tissue disease just about a year ago. I don't fit the usual patterns. I've been wallowing in a lot of "why me" this past year. Your "shit happens" phrase started an interesting train of thought. It was my mantra, more or less, 30+ years ago when we lost a premature infant daughter. I guess somewhere deep inside I assumed that I'd had my share of shit. Not so. Shit still just happens. And then a further thought-->is having RA as bad as burying a daughter? No, frankly, it's not. So if I could rebuild my life after her loss, I can rebuild my life with chronic illness in it. Starting tomorrow, I'll work a little harder on the rebuild.
Jods said…
One of my late mother's frequent expressions..Shit happens. Yes it does indeed. As do unexpected good things every once in a while.