Sunday, November 22, 2009

Survivors

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 of 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 life, 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.