a board that says "make this world better"

By Ellen Lenox Smith

Driving through town the other day, we came across a sign that read: “Become Better, Not Bitter.” I have to say this simple quote really hits the nail on the head on the life we are observing around us. So many have turned so bitter with all the trauma that has taken place in their lives. The pandemic, loss of work, isolation, increased violence, environmental disasters—these are just the tip of the iceberg. And then those of us already living with chronic medical issues have to figure out how to add all this chaos to our lives that already tend to be out of our control. No wonder so many have chosen to display bitterness right now.

In the end, learning to accept long-term, life-altering medical issues is exhausting, confusing, and stressful. But, there is also a point where you have to learn to move past just mourning your losses and learn how to pick up the pieces left of your life and carry back on. It’s not an easy process to work on focusing on finding happiness and move forward with the only life we have been given. But that choice would help to contribute to a kinder world. Or we can choose to be just bitter.

This is not an easy assignment to take on in your life. Those of us living with chronic medical conditions have had so many of our norms taken away. For me, it has included learning to accept, fight, and cope with 26 surgeries, four years in a wheelchair, catatonic episodes before a second neck fusion, the loss of hugging another person due to subluxations that occur, not lifting anything heavy, the fear of traveling due to a potential medical emergency that would not be recognized, no longer being able to read a novel due to the neck, and no longer able to swim with rotary breathing, flip turns, and use of the arms. 

But somehow, in time, I have learned to be creative and find a way to still find pleasure in life, instead of sadness from losses. Do I always achieve this attitude every day? Not on a tougher day, but on most, I am able to steer myself toward the positive over these negative.

I have to admit my hardest assignment happens when I get frightened easily due to something going wrong which sets my health back. I have to fight that emotion of “Here I go again.” It is easy to fall down that rabbit hole and focus on all the negativity you have to cope with. This includes the financial and physical hardships brought on by your issues and the fright and insecurity it feeds into. This seems, at the age of now 71, to be my biggest battle to work with—to not assume all my hard work has gone down the drain when the chips fall. Or I could just be bitter.

It’s hard work to overcome and work with the obstacles one faces with chronic medical issues. Our medical conditions may not be able to improve but we do have the responsibility on how we handle them. When I get really discouraged, I remind myself that I don’t want our sons, family, and friends remembering me as bitter so I will continue to try to work hard to try to keep treading water to keep my head above. May you find the strength to find courage and determination to take on the struggles of your life.  What do you prefer, trying to work to become better or bitter? 

May life be kind to you.

About the Author

Ellen Lenox Smith has emerged as a leading voice for patients living with pain. Currently, Ellen serves as Co-Director of Medical Cannabis Advocacy for the U.S. Pain Foundation and is a member of its Board of Directors. She is also active with the EDS RI support group.

Prior to patient advocacy, Ellen was a longtime middle school social studies teacher. She has been married for 48 years and is the proud mother of four adult children and grandmother to five grandchildren. She also is the author of two books, an organic gardener, and was previously a master swimmer and high school swim coach.