Recently, I have found that my social media timelines have been overflowing with ‘overcoming’ stories. People that have ‘overcome’ their traumas, their medical issues, their financial issues, and so forth.
We are taught to admire the people who came from nothing, the self-made billionaires and the people who put their work above everything else in their lives. While we can all applaud these success stories, and recognise the work that people put into their careers and themselves, it is important to acknowledge that having this same narrative repeated over and over again can be especially harmful to the chronically ill and disabled community.
Using Molly Mae’s recent ’24 hours in a day’ fiasco as an example, we seem to be spoon-fed this idea that if you want something bad enough, it is achievable – you just need to put the hours in. It doesn’t take a genius, though, to realise that this is not the case for all of us.
As a chronically ill woman myself, knowing that as a result of my condition I may be unable to have children, I have often found myself thinking “it’s okay, it’ll be different for me” – even though the reality is quite blatantly in front of me.
There has long been the narrative that in order to lead a happy life, or to be truly successful, you must ‘overcome’ your burdens, your ill-health, or that you must ‘rise above’ the financial situation you were born into – but what happens when you physically cannot do this?
These promises that ‘wanting something bad enough’ is enough to make it happen is simply an idea that is setting us up for disappointment. We don’t all have the same 24 hours, the same way that we can’t always ‘overcome’ things – whether that is medically, physically, financially, emotionally, and so forth – and we need to stop pretending that we can, or that it is a rite-of-passage to do so.
Such a narrative reeks of ableism; disability and health conditions are constantly portrayed as things that are essential to overcome, and when you cannot do this, it seems to necessitate a journey whereby you battle your own demons and have this grand epiphany, that makes you realise your purpose as a disabled person is to share your story and inspire able-bodied people as they gratefully think to themselves “I’m so glad that isn’t me”.
Having a chronic illness means accepting that you cannot always be in control of your work-to-rest balance. On the days that my body feels functional and my pain manageable, I feel a great sense of imposter syndrome, and on the days that I can do nothing but listen to my body’s demands for rest, I feel hopeless – worthless, even.
There is no tying a pretty bow on that and calling it inspirational, it’s a case of taking each day as it comes, and accepting that I need to allow my body as much of my ‘24 hours’ as it needs.
If illness and disability is consistently portrayed as negative, or something we should strive to overcome, how are we meant to feel whole when our illness is chronic, or our disability permanent?
My condition has no cure, and with the pandemic wreaking havoc on surgery waiting lists, my treatment plan has come to a steady halt, too. Pretty, colour-coordinated posts on self-care and motivation can only help you so much when there is physically nothing you can do to change the reality of your health.
This is my issue with toxic positivity and productivity – we only seem to recognise and applaud success when there is a consistently upward trajectory. With this narrative of fulfilment being so heavily prevalent online, it is no wonder that folk like me struggle so much to accept our own achievements and success, as perceptions of success, ‘overcoming’, and what this should look like is almost always intertwined with good-health and ‘getting better’.
To suggest that the parts of ‘my story’ where I struggle or have to ‘give in’ to my condition are something I should ‘overcome’, is to suggest that I am incapable of truly thriving as a result of my chronic illness, and for tending to my body’s needs.
My condition is incurable, but it is also not ‘inspirational’ of me to work through it – my condition is simply a part of myself that I am learning to understand, respect, and work with – not ‘overcome’ and thrive from.
It is essential that we recognise how the expectation that we should persevere and ‘overcome’ everything that life throws at us is an unrealistic and often unattainable standard to maintain. You can be successful irrespective of your health, just as you can be fulfilled and content irrespective of your financial situation.
I am tired of waiting for the miracle where I am ‘saved’ from my condition, or to be freed from the expectation that all I do is merely an attempt to motivate able-bodied people – “because if she can do it, so can you!”
How we spend our twenty-four hours is not something that can fairly be compared, as no two people’s lives or abilities look the same.
Comparing ourselves to others and these ‘success’ stories online will only ever set us up to feel inferior or insecure in ourselves and our own capabilities when, in reality, we all achieve things at our own pace, in our own ways, and irrespective of our health.
The only thing that needs overcoming, here, is the narrative that success necessitates us to overcome fragments of ourselves in the first place.