Chronic Illness & Clerical Terror

Today we went to the movies. We saw “Spotlight,” a film about the uncovering of a network of religious believers who committed crimes of abuse against children,
often leading to death by suicide or addictions, and used the promise of heavenly rewards or the terror of social isolation or eternal hell to cover up their actions. Perhaps, their places of worship ought to be under surveillance or foreign believers of the faith be carefully vetted or barred from entry to the country.

Anyway, after the film, wheelchair woes. Arrgh! First, leaving the aisle in the dim light as the credits rolled, I got jammed in the aisle been the wall and seats. Lesson: wait for light! Then going up the ramp to the van, I cut too sharply to avoid the rest of the car parked to the right and my wheel got caught over the edge of the ramp and I “hung suspended.” Fortunately, two big guys from the vegetarian bakery! next to the theater lifted the chair over the lip of the ramp.

Once I was settled back in the van, I thought about the similarity in some respects between people with illness and abuse share. Contemporary life particularly demands that individuals be proficient in a “wide-awake” style of consciousness. But it is precisely this quality of consciousness that chronic illness and bodily abuse typically undercuts. One learns to manage emotions and to separate work and private life or else our lives begin to fall apart.
We are often expected to interact with others in such a way as to minimize knowledge of their individuality as persons and avoid the pain that comes with the hierarchies of power and the arrivals and departures from workplace settings. We are encouraged to handle many tasks simultaneously in as rapid and efficient a manner as possible and to take on life’s difficulties as problems to be solved rather than as unavoidable trials of God, ill fortune, or fate. But for someone with illness, pain, medications, fatigue, restlessness, feelings of shame that permeate body and memory make it particularly difficult to attend to the matters at hand and the things that need to get done.

My continuous sensory and cognitive scanning is common among those with neuromuscular disorders, gastrointestinal distress, sexual abuse. People who suffer nausea or chronic pain also engage in a constant process of shuttling their attention between body demands and social and environmental constraints. Are the chairs firm? Can I lie down if I need to? Will there be time or space to move around or stretch? Can I get out? Deciding whether to accept an apparently simple invitation to travel can turn into a fretful dilemma packed with ambivalence and apprehension.

People with chronic illness and those who suffer from clerical terror engage in a difficult struggle to act “as if” they are “all there.” Such performances can be quite exhausting. Often told, “But you look so good,” by others just learning of their illness or person travails, they fight to keep the facts of their life— fatigue, colostomy, pain, for example—from intruding on their many roles. Those with chronic illness or sexual terror become quite skilled at impression management and learn, sometimes cruelly, with whom they can be themselves.

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