The Cult of Optimism; or, Openheart

Optimism when chronically ill is like a cult. You just show up one day and decide to be optimistic. Because you are optimistic, everyone around you is also optimistic, and for a while, that makes it seem like things will be fine. Optimism is a reflex when presenting with a protracted, terrible situation. It is a defense mechanism, a sort of emotional shock that allows us to move forward.

But optimism is also a distraction, a slight of hand. It draws your attention away from the seedy underbelly of this type of thinking. When we are alone, we sit with the nameless fears we don’t share lest we shatter this illusion of positivity. You’re not supposed to talk about the bad things that could happen when you’re part of this cult.

A lot of us are worse off than we tell people, sometimes even people close to us. There are words we can’t give shape to. A sentence we type and delete.

Over.

And over.

When things started getting bad, I decided that I couldn’t control what happened, but I could control people’s expectations. I think I will be fine, but that doesn’t mean I will be. The wrong med during surgery, undercooked egg whites, a bad car accident that triggers anaphylaxis. The night is dark and full of terrors, and all that.

Believing I will survive won’t make me live longer. I can’t control that. But I can control whether or not people are surprised if something happens to me, and I don’t ever want them to be surprised. I don’t ever want anybody to say that they didn’t know how bad it was. It’s painful for me to lay it all out for them, to say the words, to share the risks. But not doing this feels like treason.

We live in a world of secondhand information, where people so often don’t remember how they know things. It makes so much of medicine and disease impersonal, removed. When someone wonders about what it’s like to live with chronic disease, I don’t want them to read emotionless facts and statistics. I want them to read this and feel my heart bleeding across the screen.

I want them to know that we’re optimistic while being scared, that being optimistic makes it easier to be alive with a disease like mine. I want them to know that optimism is a sort of bet, borrowing against a future we know might not exist. I want them to know that optimism doesn’t save lives.

A couple of days ago, a friend of a friend died as a result of chronic illness. He had many heart surgeries throughout this life, so many that he was known as Openheart Dave.   He was in this cult of optimism, too.