…but then again, maybe that’s what you need. I know occasionally it is for me.
How our sentences are structured — in our minds, in our speech — seems so minor. “I am an athlete,” seems to mean essentially the same as “I play football,” or whatever sport you want to insert there. “I have migraines,” is basically no different from “I suffer from migraines.” But there are full galaxies in the distance between the two ways of saying things, and that distance is what separates us from what we want. Fortunately, traversing the space is simple, if not easy.
I see it every day at work as I’m doing patient histories. Those who “suffer from” a malady identify as its victim. Defeat is written across their features. They wallow in the pain which is inevitably difficult to get under control, and at times they are well known to staff because of their frequent trips seeking help. Generally, when someone tells me they “suffer from” something or are a “victim of” something, they allow it to limit them. For them life becomes a list of things they can’t do, a long corridor of doors that are closed to them.
On the other side of that spectrum is the person who has an illness or has survived a tragedy. They own it, not the other way around. They hold their heads a teeny bit higher, are more optimistic about their outcomes, and are generally easier to treat successfully. Sure, one might say they can maintain this position because their problem is not as severe which also makes it less challenging to deal with, and that might be right…sometimes. Often, though, it is not. Some of the most debilitated people I have met are the most vibrant and optimistic. They do not define themselves by their malady or their experience. It is a part of them, but it is not them.
I don’t know that these folks consciously choose their wording. I think, instead, that their attitudes, their inherent way of looking at things, naturally influences the way they choose to describe themselves. What if, however, those people of until now have chosen to describe themselves as victims chose to be survivors?
Even in my own life I have noticed the impact of how I think of things. Before I became a physician, it never occurred to me that I couldn’t. From my first imaginings of adulthood, my thoughts were, “I am going to be a doctor.” Never “I want to be a doctor.” My career was a foregone conclusion. I am not, nor have I ever been, however, an athlete — at least in my own mind. This way of thinking has sabotaged me more often than I like to admit. Feats easily accomplished in my home gym when I’m not thinking about it have proved impossible when “real athletes” are watching, and I am embarrassed to be a part of their world. The impact of this concept hit home even this last weekend when I did a photography workshop with a famous photographer and some pros who were wanting to learn from him. I no longer have anything other than a Facebook page for my photography, and it has been a long time since I’ve made any money at it, so in the introductions I didn’t sell myself as a pro, nor did I do so when the models asked what my main focus was in photography. I fumbled and futzed and generally held my head low through the whole weekend, a direct contradiction to the way I have gotten things done when I owned my skill level shooting weddings and portrait sessions where I identified as a photographer in both my mind and my words. Just saying, “I’m the wedding photographer,” imbued a sense of power over the situation.
I have experienced sexual discrimination, sexual harassment, sexual assault, bullying, depression, suicidal ideation, the loss of loved ones whom I could never imagine living without, and migraines that made me think dying would be easier. I am no stranger to pain, misfortune, or sorrow, but I am not a victim of them, and I firmly believe that that is what allows me to move on to greater things. I am still working on believing in myself in other ways and changing the dialogue in my mind that traps me into staying the fat kid picked last for kickball. For now, I simply quit telling myself what an uncoordinated clutz I am and, instead, acknowledge that I’m a persistent plodder. I am an artist because I paint and look at the world wondering what it might look like in watercolor, not because I’m the world’s greatest at or or make money with it. I am a photographer because I press the shutter hoping to capture an image that moves someone. I am a writer because I write hoping to make a reader understand or feel or hope, not because a publisher pays me to do so.
The shift is subtle, but it is powerful.
This story and all related material are the original works of Estora Adams. All rights reserved.