Sunday, November 22, 2009


You often hear the word survivor used to describe someone who has overcome a life-threatening illness or situation. There are survivors of cancer, strokes and heart attacks. There are survivors of natural disasters, poverty, rape and war.

There is no doubt whatsoever that every one of these brave and triumphant individuals should be celebrated. They have each earned their badge of courage, and they are a symbol of hope and strength to others facing the same challenges.

Still, whenever I hear this word spoken, I can't help but wonder to myself... what does it truly mean to be a survivor? Does it mean to have once been ill and to now be healthy and disease free? Does it mean to have faced an extraordinary hardship and come out the other side? What of those who fought but lost the same difficult battle? Did they not struggle through with the same amount of courage and determination? Did their spirit remain strong and intact despite not ultimately being victorious? And is that not the true victory in the end?

And what of the chronically ill? What of those of us who have suffered a debilitating disease day in and out for years and years on end? What of those of us who face all the multitudes of suffering and loss that come with an unabating chronic illness, and yet do not allow it to daunt our spirits? Are we not survivors as well, even though we remain ill?

I believe, unquestionably, that we are.

Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, author and, yes, holocaust survivor, writes: "The greatest human achievement is not success, but facing an unchangeable fate with great courage."

Success isn't always about winning. It's about how the battle is fought. It's about having the hope that we will eventually conquer despite the odds, and striving for that victorious moment with courage and grace. It's about how we face our obstacles, and not necessarily on when or even if we overcome them. There's more than one way to overcome an obstacle. There's more than one way to be a survivor.

Those of us dealing with a serious and debilitating chronic illness can often feel we have failed in some capacity. Society doesn't look well upon those who have not achieved the usual perception or definition of success. This is often further compounded if one's chronic illness is invisible to the casual observer. Others can't always see our struggle, our determination, or our courage. As we fight the battle of our lives, perhaps even FOR our lives, we are not recognized. In fact, we are often ignored. Worse still, we can even be erroneously seen as malingerers. Thus, on top of combating illness, we must also combat against the misconceptions of our illness.

And yet, we still don't give up. We continue to rise to the challenge, even when we may no longer feel we have the strength to do so. We learn to cope, to focus on the small joys of our lives, and every day, to keep up the fight. Stripped of many of the things we once thought defined us, we are forced to look within, and find out who we truly are.

In other words, we discover that we, too, are survivors.


  1. I agree; survivors are those who survive their personal battles intact and grow not necessarily those who conquer an illness. What is life after all but a process of determining just how 'intact' we are at the end; how present we are to life and opportunity - essentially who we are? In the end there will just be us and the void and all the other stuff will drop away.

    Life is filled with great battles such as career and family but ME/CFS is an extroardinary one. What a challenge it is! If we're all wending our way on some sort of spiritual path - being confronted with the different challenges we need to ultimately succeed as human beings - think what a challenge ME/CFS presents. Surely its one of the steepest of challenges - perhaps not given to those who would be destroyed by it.

    Some Buddhists when they get to a certain point purposefully immerse themselves in difficult situations in order to accelerate their progress. Why ME/CFS? Who knows? Perhaps it was for the challenge.

    Look at all the things you get to confront with this illness; isolation, derision, inability to progress on virtually every societal goal, the pain of being unhealthy - what a tremendous challenge it all is.

  2. This is a beautiful essay, Laurel. I wish it could be published in a magazine or other format where people with no idea of what CFS is like could read it. It took me years to stop blaming myself for getting sick, to realize it wasn't a personal failing on my part. It's just something that happened to my body. Now the challenge is to live well with it. Thanks for writing this. It provides a lot of food for thought.


  3. yet another thought-provocking and relatable posting!

    i once told a pwc, going through a horrendous stretch, that she must be up for sainthood. that surely there must be a reason as to why she was being put through such agony. that it must be a test. achieve victory (which in this case would be to hang on) and surely great things will come her way in reward, perhaps even sainthood. ;)

    it was all an attempt to conjure up why cfs, why me [her]. to try to bring reason and sense to something with neither.

    of course, the thought of this in such terms of it being a test is quite hard to believe, but i think she almost bought it for a little while. ;) anyway, just making it through each day with cfs (on some days even each hour) is a victory, deserving of the same praise as any victory in any aspect of life, be it military or sports or disease. i think at each day's end, and sometimes each hour's end, we who suffer so profoundly earn the right to proclaim ourselves survivors.

  4. Good insights.

    Every day you survive, you're a survivor.

  5. Thank you for this post, Laurel. We are all survivors.

  6. Laurel, may I link to this post on my blog?

  7. Thanks for all the great replies!

    Cort & Jim -- CFS is really the ultimate challenge. There's no aspect of life it doesn't effect. I think all of us with the illness have discovered that, though so physically sick/weak, we are much stronger (in terms of our spirit and character) than we could have ever imagined ourselves to be.

    If this is a test, I agree -- we must all be destined for sainthood in our next life. :)

    Toni -- I blamed myself for years as well. It's hard not to at first, when doctors tell you there's nothing wrong, it's all in your head, etc. It took a long time to realize I did not bring this upon myself, and was not to blame for not being able to (thus far) get well.

    Jo -- I'd be honored for you to post my entry on your blog!

    And Alyson and Cinderkeys -- we are definitely all survivors!

    Thanks again for all the kind comments.

  8. Another thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

    Yes, we all have a tendency to minimize the courage and strength on which we draw to survive this illness. And you, Laurel, have done wonders to keep alive your beautiful spirit in the face of terrible obstacles.

    I am in awe!

  9. Thanks, Janis... you are too sweet! I hope you are seeing some improvements in your health soon, and that all that chelation pays off for you. Hang in there!

  10. Your post really touched me, and brought a tear to my eye. All too often I forget to acknowledge the daily struggle - to see it as anything more than just another day past. It's another day faced and, more importantly, another day survived!

    Would you mind if I posted it on my blog please? As an encouragement to others, and as a reminder to myself!


  11. Thanks, Poeksie. Glad my post touched you! Yes, you can repost it on your blog.. I would just ask that you use my first name and cite the source (my blog URL). Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to make such a kind comment!