How to Recover from Chronic Illness: Realigning Body, Self, and Story

Body, Self, and Story in Chronic Illness

Many of you are living with a chronic illness. If you are young, it’s likely to be depression or anxiety, or maybe cystic fibrosis or asthma or type 1 diabetes.

If you are older, it may be hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, or arthritis.

The doctor says it’s incurable, that you have to live with it the rest of your life.

You can live with the physical pain and inconvenience of daily regimens and clinic visits, but there is a deeper source of anxiety and suffering that the doctors and pills and procedures don’t seem to deal with at all.

The illness, and its associated breakdowns in your body, stop you from doing the things that make you who you are. You just don’t feel like the same person you were before you got sick.

And you are afraid that the illness will prevent you from living out the story of your life as you had imagined it. The future seems scary and depressing.

For most people with chronic illness, the real source of suffering in chronic illness results from the damage it does to our sense of self and the disruption it does to our life story.

What Does This Have to Do with How Communication Works?

This is supposed to be a blog about how communication works, right? Why I am writing about chronic illness?

In my job as a researcher and college professor, my focus is on health communication.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, especially the articles I’ve written about face and politeness, you’ll realize that for me, the central concept in communication theory is the idea of identity.

It is the concept of identity (or self-image) that links my interest with communication with my interest in health.

Identities are performed, created, negotiated and threatened in ordinary interaction, and much of what we say and do in social interaction is driven by the need to protect and manage our identities and those of the people we are interacting with.

In chronic illness, our bodies fail us. As a result, we cannot do the social performances that make us who we are. We experience a loss of self, and social isolation, and fewer opportunities to engage in social performances, and then further loss of self.

Our life stories are disrupted. Not only does the illness prevent us from being who we are in the present. It stops us from living out the story of our lives as we had imagined and planned.

Since these stories give our lives meaning, purpose and value, and because they give our identities a sense of continuity, the biographical disruption is deeply damaging to our sense of well-being.

Body failure, failed performance, loss of self, biographical disruption: It’s a downward spiral, leading to depression and even suicide.

There is a way to stop and reverse this downward spiral. It involves minimizing body failure, redefining your identity, and rewriting your life story.

It’s not easy, but it is the only way I know of to achieve something close to recovery from chronic illness.

If you’d like to learn more, I did a short TED talk audition video on the subject (only 1 minute), and a much longer series of videos here, here, and here.

I will continue to write about communication skills as I have before, but I will now start to include more health communication topics.

Please let me know, either in the comments or email, whether these ideas interest you.

And as usual, please share on social media and invite your friends to subscribe to the mailing list.

Thank you.