Having a chronic illness isn’t brave

I have seen many brave things, either personally or on the news. I’ve even done a few myself. Having a chronic illness is not one of them!

I hear it all the time, and I’m guessing you do, too. It’s some version of “You’re so brave to deal with all of that!” or “She’s so brave to be in that wheelchair.” Oh really?!?

The last time I checked, bravery had to do with making a choice. You make a choice to put someone else’s safety above your own. You make a choice to do something scary. That’s brave. Depending on the situation, it might even be admirable.

But I didn’t make a choice to have chronic illnesses. Most people don’t. They don’t make a choice to use a wheelchair or walk with a limp or lose their vision. These are the realities of our lives and we deal with them the best we can, but we don’t chose them.

The argument then is that I’m brave for the way I handle it all. Again, I must ask: oh really?!?

What are my options? Yes, there are other ways I could handle this. And let me tell you, it wouldn’t make a difference. I’ve been called brave for putting on a smile and pretending I’m fine. I’ve been called brave for crumbling and saying that I feel like I can barely manage it. I’ve been called brave when I look completely healthy. I’ve been called brave when I’m in a wheelchair and the pain shows clearly on my face. It doesn’t matter how I handle my illnesses and their symptoms, at some point someone uses the B word.

You might wonder why I care. And the truth is that mostly I don’t. Most days I don’t even think about it. But in the moment when someone calls me brave, I bristle. When I see someone else called brave for simply being, I bristle. It bothers me because I don’t want to be put on a pedestal. I don’t want to be thought of as special or different. I want to be seen and recognized for who I really am and for what I really deal with.

This shit is hard! And I’m not special. I have to deal with it the same way anyone else would. Saying I’m brave implies that I have some special skills or personality trait that makes it easier for me to handle everything. “What a difficult thing to deal with, but she’s so brave, look how well she’s handling it!” No, I am not handling it in any special way because I’m brave. I’m handling it the best I can because that’s all any of us can do. Because that’s what I’m sure you, dear speaker, would do if you were also in my situation.

I look around the room at my many friends with chronic illness. Some have had dozens of surgeries. Are they brave because they had dozens of surgeries they never wanted? Some have kids. Are they brave because they had kids? Some weren’t able to have kids. Are they brave because they weren’t able to have kids? Some have jobs. Are they brave because they have jobs? Some can’t work. Are they brave because they can’t work?

Or are they all just doing the best they can?

Because really, what’s the alternative?

But the worst part of all is that sometimes, in a small part of me I don’t like to admit to, I feel proud when someone calls me brave. Because in that one small way, it’s a tiny bit of recognition of just how hard I work to get through each day. And maybe that means I’m a bit brave after all?

How do you feel when someone calls you or someone else with chronic illness “brave”? Do you like it? Does it bother you? Please comment below!

20 Responses to Having a chronic illness isn’t brave

  1. Well said! I utterly agree. And there’s a wonderful section in one of Christopher Reeve’s books where he discusses how his view of bravery/courage changed as he morphed from Superman into a ‘brave’ quadraplegic. We have no choice….

  2. Kelly Alive says:

    Exactly! Life doesn’t give us a choice. So we just do the best we can.

  3. I just say there are so many more brave people out there. We never know how strong we are in life until we have to be and that’s what I’m doing. We are brave and strong and I agree I take a little piece of that agree. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger and I truly believe that my illness is making me the person I was meant to be x

    • chronicrants says:

      Maybe what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, but I’m strong enough. No need to be stronger over here! I’m ready to be done, thankyouverymuch 😉

  4. Lorna says:

    Bravery takes on many forms and maybe people use it for illness as a good thing to say. Being brave sounds better than the real truth and is easier to say.
    I take every day as it comes and hope I have the strength to deal with what it holds.
    Hugs xx

  5. Karen J says:

    There is a big difference between “bravery” and “courage”:
    Bravery is *ignoring* fear or lacking fear in situations where others might be afraid.
    Courage is the resolution to do something *despite* feeling fear or having reservations.

  6. hejyork says:

    Have you seen Stella youngs Ted talk I’m not your inspiration? Slightly different topic but touches on similar ground

  7. hejyork says:

    Also, I had people tell me I was brave for working and congratulate me for it. But working wasn’t a big deal. Going into town on a weekend however was. You don’t know what is brave for a person unless you know that person

  8. lotane says:

    Or not is then up to you to decide I guess. *

  9. lotane says:

    I can really identify with your feelings! I guess its just a way for ‘other’ people to say that they do see us, and as u said recognize our efforts. If it’s truly brave or not.. I wouldn’t know

  10. jmayclarke7 says:

    To me, when someone says I’m brave, or says that they couldn’t do what I do, I see it as them trying to imagine what my life is like and they are seeing that it’s hard, which I’m not going to deny for a minute. I guess they are trying to empathise really. Great article by the way, it really sums up how I feel!

  11. Amy R says:

    When people tell me I’m brave for dealing with my daily symptoms – I actually get embarrassed. I don’t want the focus on me, but more than that, I DON’T want PITY! So I can understand why you bristle – I do too. We just need to remind ourselves that what we do – all of us – when we face a new day with a smile and the resolve to live it the best way we can – that takes courage! Because each day we risk having our hopes dashed, our plans stomped to oblivion… That takes courage – to face that – day in, day out. Remember that… because you deserve the credit for it!

    Great article!

    • chronicrants says:

      Thanks for those kind words, Amy R! While I don’t feel brave, I do sometimes feel courageous, and you’re right that it’s super important to remember. I’ll do my best 🙂 I understand not wanting to feel pitied. That’s difficult to deal with too.

  12. H H says:

    Thank you! I wish people would shut up about “attitude” and “being positive!!!!!” Maybe it makes me nicer and less uncomfortable for you to be around, but if you know my pain is really bad today, SHUT UP with the “smile!” poo. I am not verbally complaining so I don’t ruin your day, too, so be satisfied with that! If you were lying on the ground in agony I would NEVER tell YOU to smile more!

    • chronicrants says:

      I completely agree. There’s never a time when it’s appropriate to tell someone else to smile. instead of trying to change how we are expressing ourselves, maybe they should just recognize how we are expressing ourselves. Good luck dealing with those folks! I hope that you hear it less and less over time.

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