If this is not a battle, what is it?

Violent language is everywhere in the realm of illness. Especially when it comes to cancer, the terms “battling” and “fighting” as well as “winning” and “losing” come up frequently. Maybe these metaphors can be helpful because cancer patients are literally hoping to be rid of a specific group of cells, and the “battle” is meant to help them keep their chin up through the most demoralizing stretches. But where does it leave people when they find themselves “losing”? How does it affect people’s identities: how they see and feel about themselves as a “sick” person when the “enemy” is literally inside them? As Susan Sontag professed in Illness as Metaphor, reducing the human body into a battleground is dehumanizing. I would like to suggest that this is especially true in the case of chronic pain.

For those of us who live with chronic pain, we know that accepting and learning to live with it are important for the best possible quality of life. This does not mean that we stop hoping for cure, or striving for better treatments, or doing everything in our power to improve our health; it simply means we understand that aspects of our condition are beyond our control, and in all likelihood, ongoing at least for the foreseeable future.

Now, if we apply the “battle” metaphor to this situation, we run into trouble. A battle is meant to be something finite, with a measurable outcome, and chronic pain is not that. Chronic pain is chronic, so to “fight” is to find yourself in an exhausting battle with no end in sight.

I understand the urge to identify as a “chronic pain fighter”: I’ve done it many times in an attempt to recognize the strength it takes to live with constant pain and still see the good in life. But surely there must be ways to validate my strength without engaging in a never-ending, exhausting metaphorical battle with my body? Surely there is a way to have that one-sided conversation with my body when it is doing the opposite of what I want in a way that does not vilify it/me. My body is part of me, and if I’m constantly upset with it, feeling separate from it, betrayed by it, how can I heal? How can I learn to love and accept myself as I am?

The problem is, I’m not sure exactly what that conversation would would look like. Since this is a blog and not a vetted article purporting to hold life-changing wisdom, I will, for now, refrain from attempting to answer my own question with any certainty. Instead I will leave you with the status update that sparked the idea for this post. This is Rena Kulczycki talking to their body in a totally loving way:

Dear shoulders and calves, sorry about earlier today – I know you’re still hurt by how far I pushed your limits. I’m impressed by your tenacity and willingness to push through the hard parts with me: you really are stronger than I give you credit for.”

I’m going to attempt to think of my body this way: that it is with me, trying the best it can, and that the pain is not a punishment or betrayal, but rather just a sign that it’s time to rest. When I get better at this, I’ll let you know how it goes.

my body is not my enemy[Dramatic head tilt a result of trying to look artsy for my first #hospitalglam photo]

How do you relate to your pained body in non-violent ways?? What metaphors have you found to replace the battle?



  1. I completely understand where you’re coming from. I don’t like to identify myself as a “fibro fighter” because I feel the ‘fight’ won’t end well 🙂 Instead I like to think of myself as a “fibro manager”. I manage my fibromyalgia. I listen to my body and work with it…most of time.

  2. I really appreciate this post. The “battle” metaphor has been bugging me for awhile, but I couldn’t quite put into words why. I think part of it is because battle implies winner, and there is no winner in dealing with a chronic condition like EDS – it’s in my genetic code, I can’t “win” over that. And I very much like your point about not wanting to be at war with my body.

  3. […] If this is not a Battle, what is it? (On reframing the way we talk about chronic illness) […]

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