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Confessions of a Sick Person, by Toni Bernhard

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This article was first published Oct 1, 2012 by Toni Bernhard, J.D.* in her Psychology Today blog – “Turning Straw Into Gold: Illness through a Buddhist lens.” Toni is the author of the Nautilus Gold Medal winning book How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers

The Confessions of a Sick Person, by Toni BernhardConfessions of a Sick Person
12 confessions about life while sick

Toni Bernhard, J.D.

Some of these are lighthearted, some are not. It may not be in my best interests for the people in my life to be reading this, but I’m in the mood to confess, so here goes.

I love my bed.

I know it’s better not to stay in bed if I don’t need to, but I confess: I love my bed. Aside from its traditional uses, I never realized what a multi-functional, versatile piece of furniture it can be.

First off, it makes a great office. There’s plenty of space to spread out books and notes, and a laptop fits nicely on my reclined body. I’m writing this piece from my bed. I wrote How to Be Sick and my new book from my bed. And, in all my years in the workforce, I never had as comfortable an office chair as the combination of my mattress and my customized multi-pillow arrangement.

My bed is also a great dog playground. Rusty’s and my favorite game is bed rats (I don’t know where the name comes from). Jerking my hand around under the quilt, I grab at his paws and legs. He gets crazy happy – barking and wagging his tail while gently biting at hands he can’t see. It’s not so good for the quilt, but it’s a cheap quilt.

My bed also serves as the perfect intermediate stopping place for dishes that are on the way from my lap to the kitchen. Disclaimer: bed as dish depository and bed as dog playground should not to be attempted simultaneously.

I’ve become an expert eavesdropper so watch out what you say about me if you’re in my living room.

I often can’t hang out in the living room for the entire time that family or friends are visiting, but my bedroom is nearby. When I get there, instead of putting on some music or the TV, I often just listen to the conversation going on in the living room. Sometimes they’re talking about me – what a bonus!

I’ve been known to lie down on the rug right inside the bedroom door so as to be able to hear more clearly. I’m not proud of this new skill as an eavesdropper, but it reflects how hard it is to have to absent myself in the middle of a good time.

I worry that I’m no longer competent out in the world.

I’m reluctant to put gas in my car because I don’t understand the new procedure even though my husband has demonstrated it to me a few times. But I keep forgetting: Do you swipe your credit card before you put the gas in? Afterwards? How do you hold the card so as to assure a proper swipe? How do you get that nozzle to stick in the tank without holding onto it? How do you take it out without spilling gas all over the side of the car? I’m clueless.

Then there was the time I took my friend, Kari, to an early dinner as a thank you for editing the manuscript for my new book. The bill came and I took it out of the folder. Looking it over, I was puzzled. I said to Kari, “I don’t see a place to add in a tip.” She politely pointed out that I had to put my credit card on the folder and that, after the server swiped the card, I’d get a new bill with space for a tip. Wow. I used to know that.

On a bad day, this worry can escalate into fear that I’ll be treated like a child if I’m not right on top of an interaction – infantilization is the ugly word for this phenomenon.

Sometimes I envy those who are more seriously ill than I am.

I know a woman with a progressive disease that has her confined to a wheelchair and has affected her ability to speak clearly. But she and her husband are able to travel. They go on vacations and they visit her children out of town. In her immobility, in some ways, she’s more mobile than I am. I’ve sometimes envied her even though it’s likely that I’ll outlive her. I’m not proud of this feeling, but there you have it. This is a confession piece after all.

I listen to audiobooks the way people listen to music they love: over and over and over.

I’m always being told to get this new book or that new book. I nod as if I’ll keep it in mind. What I don’t share is that I’m busy listening to A Room with a View for the tenth time or to a P.D. James mystery again even though I know whodunit. Or I might be listening to an Alexander McCall Smith book for the umpteenth time.

These aren’t necessarily great novels. They’re just books in which I’ve made friends with the characters. I’m pretty isolated, but these are folks I can hang out with!

I’d like to help Miss Lucy Honeychurch out when she’s in yet another one of her muddles. I’d like to be on detective Adam Dalgliesh’s crime-solving team. And I’d love to be in Botswana, sharing bush tea with McCall Smith’s No. 1 ladies’ detective, Mma Ramotswe. (I have the same relationship to a few movies. Gosford Park comes to mind. I want Maggie Smith to come over and insult me with her acerbic wit. For the privilege, I’ll even play the role of her lady’s maid and dutifully put sliced cucumbers on her eyelids.)

I don’t shower every day.

Nope, I don’t. This would have been unimaginable to me before I got sick. But you know what? My skin seems to appreciate it.

My dresser drawers are a great alternative to trying to follow that You Tube advice on how to declutter my living space.

Do you want less clutter but are too sick or in pain to wrap your mind around all those You Tube videos on how to declutter your living space? For each problematic item, we’re supposed to carefully consider whether to: give it away; toss it; or keep it (in which case we’re to find its one and only proper place).

Well, there’s a fourth alternative: shove it! (into a drawer). Yes, out of sight is out of mind.

I’m sometimes grateful to be able to use illness as an excuse not to go to a social event.

Most of the time, I’m sad that I can’t go. But I can also be glad to get out of it. The likelihood of the latter increases in direct proportion to the likelihood of getting stuck in freeway traffic (even though I’m not even the one driving).

When I’m alone, my eating habits are fit only for my hound dog to see.

When I’m alone, I often lick the bowls or plates after I’ve eaten from them. Not only is there food to be had there, but every dish licked is a dish that’s easier to wash.

I might park in a disabled spot as a favor to the non-disabled.

I have a disabled parking placard. Unless I’m feeling very sick, I don’t take up a disabled space since I’m able to walk short distances. But there’s one parking lot in town where it’s usually impossible to find a place to park unless you have that placard. Then I use the disabled space so the non-disabled can find a place to park. Why does this always make me feel guilty and altruistic at the same time?!

I cut my own hair.

No, I don’t know what I’m doing, although I did find a You Tube video on cutting bangs that helped. And it helps that my hair is wavy, so mistakes don’t usually show unless they’re egregious.

I don’t do it to save money. I started doing it because it was more taxing for me to listen to the real-life dramas of the hair stylist I used to go to than it was to sit on a chair in front of a mirror and spend 45 minutes hacking away. Funny thing is: I’ve received the occasional compliment on my hair cut!

The author of How to Be Sick doesn’t always know how to be sick.

A few months ago, I found myself going rapidly downhill. I was waking up feeling more sick than usual, and all day long had intense flu-like symptoms. I considered whether there’d been any changes that might have triggered this downward spiral: a new medication, a change in diet? I couldn’t come up with anything and began to get scared that my “baseline” was about to go down a notch or two.

I tried hiding it from my husband because I didn’t want him to worry, but he knew. Realizing this, I broke down in sobs one night, sharing with him my frustration and my fears.

I immediately saw that my worsened condition had nothing to do with anything external. I had simply stopped taking good care of myself. Instead of asking, “How can I take care of myself today?” I’d been asking, “How can I push my limits today?” As a result, I was overextending myself in every way: visiting with people for too long, pushing against my nap time and my bedtime, staying on the computer too long.

I’d forgotten “how to be sick”! Within days of beginning again to take care of myself, I’d returned to my baseline.

Would you like to confess? Unlike me, you can do so anonymously! Just join the discussion below. I can also be found on Facebook and I appreciate your shares. Thanks so much.

You might also like “10 Things I Didn’t Know Before I Got Sick.”


* This article is reproduced with Toni Bernhard’s kind permission. ©2012 Toni Bernhard. All rights reserved. Toni is the author of the very popular Nautilus Gold Medal winning book, How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. Until she had to retire due to ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’ (ME/CFS/FM), she was a law professor at the University of California-Davis, serving six years as the dean of students. She can be found online at HowToBeSick.com. Toni also writes regularly for Psychology Today at www.PsychologyToday.com/blog/turning-straw-gold

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11 thoughts on “Confessions of a Sick Person, by Toni Bernhard”

  1. linger01 says:

    Wow, I pretty much could have written the same things about myself, except I don’t lay on the floor near the door to eavesdrop. lol

    Thanks for putting my thoughts into words! It is always comforting to know you’re not alone.

  2. jcmoffatt says:

    Wow! I am going to print your article off and keep it close to me forever. Thank you for validating what we go through. I, too, live in/on my bed/couch, I, too, play the same hand-under-the-blanket game with my two Chihuahuas. They have become my 24/7 companions (but I let them lick my bowls)! Unlike you, my husband left me a year after I was diagnosed with my chronic illness. With my “soul-mate” (ya, right) gone, I have leaned heavily on my two sons. They still live at home and are attending university. I feel guilty about sending them to the grocery store, asking for rides to my doctor appointments, not cooking 3 meals a day like my Mom did until the day she died. Living in/on my bed has created a ceaseless game of tug-of-war in my head. Guilt mixed with gratitude is like oil mixed with water; you can’t have them both at the same time. Being a sick person is so complicated. At times it is a relief not to have to deal with the world; conversely I crave being vibrant and full of energy like I used to be. Thank you so much for putting ‘my words’ on paper.

  3. lauramcmullan says:

    Love the drawer idea. Except when you don’t feel like opening the drawer, then you just walk over the clothes on the floor.

  4. back2game says:

    Some days the only thing that helps is to know I’m not alone. Love your description of your credit card confusion. Who would have ever thought something so simple would seem so complicated for us? I praise God for my husband every day. Thanks for putting into words what many of us cannot. So appreciated.

  5. realviking says:

    I am not the only person to lick off the dishes!
    You have no idea how much secret shame that confession has lifted off of me:)
    This article is priceless for it’s brave honesty.
    I am still laughing.
    Looking forward to more of the same, so refreshing.

    1. joan55 says:

      I guess the old adage “misery loves company” has much truth to it. After years of suffering without anyone truly understanding what it’s like, it is always comforting to come across another soul who is “in the same boat” and who shares a deep and organic understanding of what I am going through because they have “walked in my shoes.” [Please pardon all of the cliches but they just seemed appropriate.] Only a fellow sufferer could have written such an intuitive piece and there is some kind of strange consolation in knowing that “I’m not alone” in my pain and isolation.

    2. 013101 says:

      Hello everyone. I tried to comment separately on each of your comments but could only get this one screen to show. I just wanted to say how glad I am that my piece resonated with all of you. There seemed to be one thing in it that hit home, whether it was licking the dishes or forgetting how to use a credit card.

      It feels good to know we’re not alone. Again, thanks to all of you.


    3. 013101 says:

      Hello everyone. I tried to comment separately on each of your comments but could only get this one screen to show. I just wanted to say how glad I am that my piece resonated with all of you. There seemed to be one thing in it that hit home, whether it was licking the dishes or forgetting how to use a credit card.

      It feels good to know we’re not alone. Again, thanks to all of you.


    4. jmkinsey says:

      And how about eating out of pans? It saves dishes & the need to wash them or load them into or out of the dishwasher. The only problem comes when the man behind me comes out onto his patio to smoke & I wonder if he can see my laziness through my patio door. Oh, well, the weeds in his yard are taller than mine!

    5. samanthahw says:

      That was hysterical because it was SO very true. I’d never admitted to most of these things because I’d never imagined someone else also thinks this way…from cutting my own hair to handicap parking as a “favor” to non-handicap drivers, to silly games in bed with my dog and hollering my “peanut gallery” comments to interesting conversations going on in the living room. I’m definitely going to join you and start noticing items to add to my own list of confessions! Thanks for a great laugh.

  6. Dave says:

    I just started reading “How to Be Sick” and wondered about your (Toni’s) background. What a joy (ok, this is sick but you’ll understand) to learn that you have chronic Lyme disease, too! I think you have it worse than I do.
    So we have two things in common, the other being a long-time meditation practice.
    I’m looking forward to reading the book and wish you well.

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