Kelly Clarkson has been singing her heart out saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, stand a little taller, doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone. What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter, footsteps even lighter”… you get the idea. In her song Kelly is referring to a break up with a guy not killing her but making her stronger. The actual concept comes from a deep thinking philosopher who endured a mental break down at 34 from which he never recovered. He died at 56 having lived 23 years with continual mental and physical health problems. His own life seemed to prove that what doesn’t kill you can actually make you crazy. His name was Friedrich Nietzsche.
I originally saw this quote in the early 90’s on a magazine cover in the grocery store. Sally Field was using it to describe a personal battle she’d been through and I needed to hear it. A few months prior to that I had been given a very bleak diagnosis of systemic lupus erythematosus, forced to leave a job I absolutely loved and spend the rest of my days trying to figure out how to live with chronic illness. I found great inspiration for an optimistic outcome in the thought that lupus would likely not kill me but instead make me stronger.
In many, many ways living with an underlying auto immune disease (doctors have changed my diagnosis several times) has actually made me stronger. Long bouts of silence and solitude have forced me to read and think deeply about my life in ways that would never have been possible otherwise. In other ways, though, the great crash in 1992 that almost killed me has also made it more difficult than I could ever have imagined it would.
My illness was diagnosed when my daughter was just 5 years old. Though it brought me home full time, I was often in bed and absent from her daily life for long periods of time. At 16 and in therapy for a life threatening eating disorder, she revealed to us that she had no memory of my illness and its consequences to our family. She had totally dissociated from the experience because it was so traumatic for her. With much effort and contemplation on her part, she finally did remember it and along with it the intense fear that I was going to die. That fear combined with a rough bonding experience and trauma from abdominal surgeries as a premature baby, made life in adolescence unbearable for her. Her brain was literally injured through those experiences. As a result, the last 12 years of my daughter’s life have been filled with doctors appointments, insurance appeals, time in treatment and more “advice” than any of us could possibly tolerate. She is 26 and doing her best to make a valuable and meaningful life for herself. She is amazingly resilient and strong but mental illness and the medical issues from her premature birth have nearly killed her several times. Her life will only be lived well WITH mental illness. There is no cure.
Two years ago this coming October, I went to the hospital for a minor surgery in the midst of beginning a new career as a Special Education teacher working with kids with emotional/behavior disorders. At the time I was in a new home, a new state and had no support system in place. The work I was doing very quickly became the most stress-filled position I had ever had. In this new land up north I went to school in the dark and went home in the dark. My room had no natural light in it. Having lived in Utah where there are 300+ days with sunshine at 4500 feet in elevation, it was a huge shock to my system.
In addition to my own issues, my daughter chose to suddenly leave and move 1500 miles away. After all we’d been through together, I had become very fixed on keeping her alive and well. In other words, codependent and the distance terrified me. I had nightmares of her dying on a regular basis. It was as if the multiple traumas from having almost lost her in infancy, from the eating disorder and all that went with mental illness, had reached its max in my body. I had grown so used to living on the ragged edge that I didn’t grasp how vulnerable I was. I had started having panic attacks the week before my surgery was scheduled. I really should have cancelled it and waited until the following summer. Unfortunately, I was sleeping almost upright because the reflux was so intense that I was beginning to get it into my wind pipe when I was flat on the bed and one can actually die from that so I thought I just had to do it.
Two more surgeries followed after major complications arose and in January my gall bladder had to be removed. This nightmare left my body extremely spent and vulnerable. One of the surgeries involved cutting a rib in two, spreading my ribs apart with a special instrument and cutting an intercostal nerve in two while injuring several others. As my body attempted to heal, new problems continually developed making it impossible for me to continue to teach Special Ed here in Minnesota. In fact, it’s made it impossible for me to do very much at all beyond taking care of myself and my home. I am beginning to get physically stronger but clearly, if I don’t learn how to read my body’s stress responses, I will not live a lot longer.
I’ve learned so much through the illnesses and losses in my life that I can definitely say, I am in fact stronger in every way. At the same time, there are elements of my life that have become a whole lot weaker and taken from one angle could definitely prove Nietzsche wrong. I think that it could just as easily be said, “That which does not kill you has the potential to turn you into a wretched, sour and fatalistic human being.”
The truth is that all of these things together made me severely depressed and at times I really didn’t have any idea how to carry on. The only things that kept me alive were my faith in a God who loved me so ruthlessly that I could be completely real and not feel ashamed and the need to be here for my family.
Though my body still has a ways to go, I have been doing a lot better this entire summer. It is clear to me now that the rest of my life is truly up to me and the decisions I make. It has become very clear to me that working for anyone else is something I will never do again. My body is structurally compromised as a result of the thoracotomy surgery and though I am improving every day, the muscle rebuilding process continues to be long and slow. My adrenal glands have worked over time for way too long so the stress hormones in my body are very low. I can’t endure a lot of loud music and find myself quickly over stimulated in public places. This last weekend I stretched myself and took a trip with Dean to northern Utah to celebrate our 30th anniversary. We did a lot of things but in-between we hiked in the solitude and quiet of the mountains. I made it through the airport and did fine among a lot of people, so I know I am getting better every day.
I can sing with Kelly Clarkson’s song and align with Nietzsche’s thoughts believing that what hasn’t killed me is making me stronger but here’s the real deal; it is simply time for me to stop trying to prove it.