Can illness and disability be overcome through the power of positive thinking? One could be forgiven for thinking so. In newspaper and magazine articles, social media posts and television programmes, a powerful message is constantly delivered: physical impairment need not be a barrier to dreams. You can be whatever you want to be.
A familiar pattern is followed. A disabled or seriously ill person’s story is told, almost inevitably with the insistence that they have ‘refused’ to let their condition stop them doing whatever they want to do. Proof is provided in the form of an impressive fundraising endeavour, gruelling physical challenge, or defiance of medical prognosis.
Physical or mental impairment is thus presented as an obstacle that can be overcome with big dreams and gutsy determination. The impact of severe illness, life-changing injury or genetic abnormality is reduced to little more than a choice: a choice between refusing to accept one’s limitations, or, presumably, giving in to them. Because, the narrative goes, if a brave person puts their mind to a challenge, there is nothing that can stop them.
Not only is this patently false, it is harmful to all those whose limitations will not be fundamentally altered by a fighting spirit. It may be comforting to the wider world to believe that illness and disability are a state of mind, and that those afflicted can achieve wonderful things if only they dream big enough. But it simply isn’t true.
For a start, comparing one condition with another, or even one person with another, is impossible. My illness has gradually improved over time, allowing me to progress from complete paralysis to a place where I have learnt to use my arms, sit up and (to a very small extent) walk again. However, had my disability stemmed from a severed spinal cord, such progress would have been impossible. On the other hand if I were a quadriplegic, it might be possible for me to have a career, raise a family or travel the world – things that are far beyond my reach as someone with severe ME. In both instances the extent of the limitations presented, and the achievements possible within them, are primarily determined by physiology rather than psychology.
In the summer I was well enough to go to the beach for the first time in over thirty years. (The Day I Touched the Sea Again After 30 Years.) This was a momentous occasion that demanded huge courage and determination – a fact I would never want to be overlooked. But to focus too closely on that aspect alone would be to ignore other factors that were equally critical to the achievement. Aside from the good fortune of having improved enough to undertake such a trip (something I never underestimate), there was the existence of a beach wheelchair that could be hired, and the hard work of my family in getting me to the coast. Without these crucial supporting details, my dream – despite all the determination in the world – would have remained just that. This is a fact generally edited out of stories which promote the mindset angle of achievement: mental attitude has its limits without a responsive body, accessibility, and people willing to assist. Financial status deserves its own mention too, as poverty magnifies the impact of disability many times over: a disabled person with money is always going to be better off than one without.
This is a fact generally edited out of stories which promote the mindset angle of achievement: mental attitude has its limits without a responsive body, accessibility, and people willing to assist.
None of this is to say that mindset isn’t important, because I believe it very much is. A person with hope for the future, belief in themselves and strong motivation is evidently better off than someone with none of the above, if only in the way that they feel about themselves. But to suggest that it is a simple equation of determination equals outcome is grossly distorting reality. It is also damaging to those who are so broken by life that hope and self-belief are shattered. In the harshest times of my illness, did I believe that I would one day see the sea again? No – I actively feared that I never would. Did I believe that I might one day be able to bear weight through my legs? No – it was impossible to see how I could ever make progress. And in the absence of that belief in my future, I was consumed with guilt because I thought it meant that I would never improve.
I hugely admire anyone who overcomes their limitations with achievements that are spectacular even by able-bodied standards. But my admiration and respect are even greater for those who must invest everything they have in simply getting through the day. I am awed by the courage of my friends who endure agony every waking moment, who are too ill ever to speak to another person, and who can never feel sunshine on their face. Yet who somehow still live their lives with the most astonishing strength, grace and humour. They are among the world’s true heroes.
Others might think differently of course, but I do not find it inspiring to be told that I can achieve anything I put my mind to – because I know it isn’t true. For me, a far more powerful message is that each and every person alive holds a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. The truly successful person is one who lives the very best life possible within their own individual parameters.
The emphasis should be on honouring one’s own unique challenges; not on denying their existence. Positivity can be healthy, but not when accompanied by the insistence that anything is possible with enough effort.
That’s not to say that those parameters can’t be challenged, or that there won’t be times when, through determination and effort, certain limitations can be overcome. I’m not suggesting that anyone should resign themselves to miserable circumstances, particularly if they stem from a societal failure to support and adapt. There is always the possibility that life can change for the better in some way.
But the emphasis should be on honouring one’s own unique challenges; not on denying their existence. Positivity can be healthy, but not when accompanied by the insistence that anything is possible with enough effort. Mental fortitude is vital, but that alone will not alter material circumstance.
In my case, the starting point to my life improving (emotionally as much as physically) was true acceptance of my limitations, as opposed to fighting against them. Realistic acceptance can be the beginning of growth. For me, that growth has included special occasions like the trip to the beach. But far more often it has been made up of small moments unnoticed by the outside world, and insignificant to anyone other than me.
Contrary to popular perception, achievement and overcoming rarely arrive in a blaze of glory. More often they are a quietly flickering light that whispers: “I can face another day.” Such strength of spirit will never make the news, but it is where true determination lies.
Image credit: Yatharth Roy Vibhakor on Unsplash
Image description: A silhouetted figure stands looking out across a mountain range. The sun is rising, and the peaks of the mountains are also in shadow.