Recently I took part in a clinical trial to help establish how my medication might affect the course of a Covid-19 infection. To start I needed to give a blood sample by pricking my finger and putting a few drops into a tiny vial. After reading the instructions and laying out the equipment, I pricked my finger and held it over the vial. The fine motor skills in my hands are not good. In one hand I have a condition called CRPS (complex regional pain syndrome), which means that my hand can be stiff and clumsy. My finger was bleeding, and the blood seemed to go everywhere, except into the vial. I kept shaking and squeezing my finger, and the result was more blood smeared around and a hurting finger. In the end yours truly – the woman who has had numerous operations and unpleasant hospital treatments, loves climbing some of the most difficult peaks in Alps, injects herself every week for years, – started crying. This meant that I couldn’t see what I was doing anymore. So I gave up.
What happened? Suddenly I had felt completely overwhelmed by this situation. I want to support medical research, but I felt crushed by this small event: a hopeless and helpless person with incurable conditions, who can’t even prick her finger.
Was my reaction in some way related to the pandemic? The suffering caused by the Corona virus, including the restrictions placed on my own life, is a misery. Was my crying related to these months of restrictions, the tiredness we are all feeling and the horror at the global suffering. The Coronavirus 2019-nCoV reminds us that nature is stronger than we are. It shows us that our efforts to control life and create certainties to make us feel safe, can disappear at any moment. That is a frightening thought.
I see parallels in the threats posed by living in the pandemic and with an incurable condition. In both cases my behaviour gives me a measure of control. I can reduce the risk from Covid-19 by following the recommendations to prevent infection. Careful self-management and taking my medication will probably keep my conditions under control. But there is no certainty in either case. Despite precautions I may still contact Covid-19, and even following medical advice my treatment may stop working as it did in 2017, or I may get another illness which endangers the existing therapy, as in 2019.
Both the pandemic and a disposition to chronic illness are expressions of the power of nature. They are best met with humility and respect. Given the current efforts, in a fairly short time science will find a way to both treat and prevent Covid-19 – normal life will return, and all will be ok – at least in rich countries like Switzerland. That’s not what most people affected by chronic diseases can expect. Our situation is not transitional. There is no light at the end of the tunnel with a vaccine. We are living on a knife edge all the time.
The word that comes into my head is vulnerability and that is what this blog is about: a reflection on what I think vulnerability is for me, how chronic conditions affects my relationship to it, and whether vulnerability is a good or bad thing for me as a patient.
According to Merrian-Webster dictionary vulnerability derives from the Latin verb vulnerare, meaning “to wound”. It means openness to attack or hurt, either physically emotionally, or mentally. In Wikipedia it “refers to the inability (of a system or a unit) to withstand the effects of a hostile environment.”
Vulnerability has so many different facets. It describes a deeply personal inner feeling, but also relationships to other people. In my inner world it starts with fear and dread about something, or maybe it’s uncertainty that overwhelms me and creates feelings of powerlessness. I feel that I’m loosing control, which make me feel defenceless, and acutely aware that I need help. That can lead to a sense of shame and pain, because I can’t manage, which leads to fear and dread…. and ends in a feeling of vulnerability. I can’t really separate cause and effect, it feels more like a circle of feelings which are deeply connected.
In my situation as a patient with chronic conditions, how people relate to me can crucially affect my vulnerability. A visit to the doctor may make me feel very vulnerable. Lots of the above factors come together. I’m going to the doctor to tell her or him about how the pain has been, or because I’m feeling ill, depressed or exhausted. I’ve come because I can’t help myself and don’t know what to do. To get help I must open myself up in the most intimate way. I tell my story, sometimes I take off my clothes and stand naked in front of her or him. Sometimes I am doing this with a person that I have never met before.
What if I do not feel empathy or interest from the person? What if the news is bad? I feel fear. If the solution seems quite simple, I’ve even felt shame for making a fuss, and on the occasions when I’ve been told that there is nothing wrong with me – except in my head – I felt misunderstood and very miserable. All in all, going to the doctor is never just a “consultation”, it always means much more. Sometimes relief, sometimes new uncertainly, more loss of control and those feelings of vulnerability come again.
Chronic disease means the loss of control and loss of health by definition. It can also mean stigma and shame. Who with chronic disease has not been confronted with the attitude that loss of health is a bit self-inflicted? “If you could only find the courage to stop your medication and follow this or that (quack) treatment, you would be cured…..bla, bla..” When people give me such advice, I wonder what moves them. Are they giving me something as an expression of compassion, or are they pushing something at me to keep me at a distance, because ill-health is a threat?
Chronic illness often leads to loss of self-esteem – not just because the chronically sick haven’t managed to keep healthy, but also because we sometimes don’t look good. We are fatigued, not always able to do things we want to. Perhaps we can no longer do the job we were trained to do, or are too tired or immobile or poor to go out and socialise, which leads to isolation, loneliness and depression, and thus even greater difficulty in finding or keeping friends. All other things being equal, chronic illness increases vulnerability.
My last reflection is whether vulnerability could have an upside. Can vulnerability help me as a patient, and be a source of strength? When I was diagnosed with Spondyloarthritis I sought the company of other sufferers through my patient organisation. I was struck by the way that some people had accepted their situation and were even thankful for it, and had integrated the condition into their being, rather than suppressed it.
I think this is what they did: If you have lost something important in your life, like being healthy, then you learn that you aren’t perfect and you never will be. If you know that limits beyond your control have been imposed and that you can’t do or have everything you want (although lifestyle coaches try to teach us that we can), then it’s also easier to be grateful for what you have and for every day when you have nothing to grumble about.
Acknowledging Spondyloarthritis means that I have to recognise my imperfection and learn to accept my limits. To do that I have to give myself a break and find compassion for myself. That act of compassion opens the door to acceptance and helps me to be the person I am without covering up.
If this understanding of myself allows me to act in a way that is congruent with my beliefs and experiences, then I can connect with others without fear of what others think, or whether I will be hurt, disappointed or fail in some way. That path to connection embraces my understanding of authenticity: showing myself in my vulnerability is showing my true self, and that allows vulnerability to become beautiful and a source of strength.
In her TED talk Brené Brown tells the story of many years of research and personal discovery to understand The Power of Vulnerability. She explains how embracing vulnerability enables people to feel worthy, which in turn gives them a strong sense of love and belonging.
If we try to avoid hurt and do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable, we put an isolating shell around us. Then we cannot show ourselves as we are and loose the opportunity to connect to those feelings of inner worth, love and belonging. The dilemma explained by Brené Brown is that we can’t selectively numb the fears that vulnerability exposes, without numbing the positive qualities as well. So if we suppress our vulnerability, we also numb feelings of joy, gratitude and love at the same time and cut ourselves off from these sources of happiness.
I feel it myself and some fellow patients have told me the same thing: the vulnerability that their conditions has brought into their lives has also heightened their ability to feel joy and gratitude, to live in the moment with love and happiness in their hearts. Vulnerability – indeed a word for our times.