An Illusory Sense of Control

My psychologist refers to it as “the moment you realise the world is not a safe place.” I prefer to see it as a realisation that you have no control over your life – that your carefully laid plains mean nothing, anything can happen to anyone at any given time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. For me, this realisation occurred when I first fell ill 7 years ago, and continues to occur again and again as this illness unravels everything I thought I knew about life.

 

Despite having grown up in a family where the vagaries of chronic illness were made clear, I once held some small belief that I could protect myself from the whims of fate. Don’t choose me, I thought, as I pumped weights, meditated, and obsessed over the organic status of my food. “Healthy living” was a totem I could hold up against the random lottery of life.

Being struck with an illness which gradually consumed everything with which I defined myself was an awakening. Chronic illness was no longer a thing that happened to other people, it was my life – as was losing study, work, volunteer work, friends and hobbies. (Not to mention much of my bodily function.)

Don’t get me wrong – I never thought that illness, poverty, or other forms of loss and hardship were ever the fault of their victims, and I spent a lot of time and money trying to redress the fact that others had been dealt a shittier hand at life than me. But to realise something through first hand experience is something else entirely, something that shattered my world and its fragile beliefs.

 

The actor-observer effect describes the assumptions we make about our actions: we are more likely to assume that others’ behaviour is entirely due to their personality, and attribute our behaviour to external factors.It is one of a variety of cognitive biases we use to draw this conclusion: unlike everyone else, our successes are a result of our hard work, and failures down to unavoidable circumstances. How simple and reassuring it is to believe that we have control over our lives, and in some way can prevent unspecifiedย bad things happening to us.

 

Many I have met in the chronic illness community possess a quiet dignity and strength of character I can only admire. Despite being faced with circumstances which are entirely out of their control, they meet those challenges head on with tenacity and courage.

It is but a small leap of logic to attribute recovery outcomes to this same strength of character. I can too easily assume that my current health status – mostly upright, talking, able to leave the house occasionally – is due to my hard work, and forget that I was working just as hard, if not more so, when I was house- and bed-bound.

Even after all these years, I still have to remind myself that I have no say in what happens to my body. I despair that I will ever fully know not to take too much credit for my work in something that is entirely out of my control. We humans are, after all, inclined to think in heuristics. But it is important to keep reminding myself – for if we assume that those who recover from or survive their illness do so because of their hard work, what does it say about those who do not?

 

To desperately cling to a sense of control and order in the universe may provide some feeling of order, but it can be at the expense of one’s empathy for others. If someone has the combination of privilege, inexperience and performed the mental gymnastics required to believe that all of life’s troubles are preventable, they must also believe that those experiencing hardship are personally at fault and undeserving of help.

All Centrelink recipients are dole bludgers, assumes the entrepreneurial property investor whose collateral comes courtesy of the bank of mum and dad. Refugees don’t deserve to come to our country, bleats the white nationalist who was to be lucky enough to be born in a land not torn apart by war. I wonder what would happen if their worlds were to come undone, and they too found themselves in the three-hour queue at Centrelink, or facing decades in a refugee camp.

It is no coincidence that the only friends who have stuck by me through my illness are those who have experienced hardships of their own. Those who are ensconced in a bed of privilege have slunk away, as though I might contaminate them with my suffering.

 

Clinging to an illusory sense of control gave me a feeling of safety in an uncertain world. But it made me insular, obnoxious and oblivious to the suffering of others. As much as I hate living with chronic illness, it did deliver the terrifying and freeing realisation of how little control we have over our lives, which is a truly precious gift.

 

A starry night sky over a beach and cliff tops.
Stars at the Great Ocean Road. Source.

 

 

Author: Siobhan S

20 something, living in country Australia. Spoonie profile: ME/CFS, dysautonomia, anxiety. All about sewing, knitting and food. Unapologetic feminist and disability advocate.

18 thoughts on “An Illusory Sense of Control”

  1. So very true. Life, however it comes, is a precious gift with no guarantees. Your posts are always so inspiring to read. Much admiration for you from me.

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  2. This piece is so beautifully written and a piece I would love everyone to read. You are so right in that we do not have control over our lives, our health and our bodies. We do not battle an illness, we live with it and if we are fortunate, our body decides if it wants to be well. Doing all of the right things is no guarantee of good health. Sending you love and hugs and please keep writing when you are able to. You are an inspiration Siobhan and I truly wish that your body would decide on wellness, rather than illness. You certainly deserve wellness.

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    1. Thank you Marjorie โค I was in part thinking of what you have told me about your husband’s passing, and others who have lost loved ones in writing this. There are lots of terrible ways life can throw us and it’s not fair in the slightest. Much love.

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  3. What a truly remarkable insight Siobhan. It is freeing because you understand fault has no place in the world of struggle. I hope your good days are truly huggable, like you and the other days embracing for the opportunities they may, or may not, provide. Lots of love, Aunty E ๐ŸŒท

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  4. I remember covering some aspects you’ve written about, like the actor-observer effect, in my Psych degree. It’s quite powerful stuff. When you said “only friends who have stuck by me through my illness are those who have experienced hardships of their own”, I’m afraid I have to agree with you there, and perhaps some of it comes down to less ability to empathise and more ability to walk away without consequence. Thought-provoking post!
    Caz x

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    1. I did a psyc degree too, and was looking over my old notes when writing this! Social psyc was by far the most interesting subject for me. In a way I feel sorry for those who can’t empathise, because they have closed themselves off to so much life experience. And when something does happen that shatters their world, it will be all the more shocking.

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  5. So very beautifully said Siobhan thankyou for sharing. Reading this gave me the same feeling as the first time I read a book called How To Be Sick by Toni Bernhard. She was my awakening, when I realised that yes this was happening to me; instead of why me it became why not me? For all my apparent control in my past life (and goodness we seem to share a few similarities, from the psych degree to the weight lifting, meditation and organic foods!) I got sick and stayed sick. As human beings our physical bodies will break down at some point. Maybe this is my time. Maybe I’ll have some good years in the future maybe not. I know I’ll do my best to make the most of what I have and that will have to be enough.

    The best analogy I can come up with is that feeling when you’re outside at night in the countryside and all you can see is the infinite stars. That’s when I realise that I’m really a small speck in a vast world; my life is a blink and you’ll miss it in the grand scheme of things. Control in the face of this is such an illusion. And yet that magical night sky gives me a sense of peace and wonder. I do hope this rambling makes sense. I really just wanted to thank you and send you love.

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    1. And hah! I’ve just seen your picture of the starry sky along Great Ocean Rd! Didn’t need to explain myself to you at all โ˜บ๏ธ

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    2. I actually read that book a few years, but can’t remember much from it. I’ve obviously absorbed some of her lessons if I’m parroting her beliefs in blog posts! Haha. Her blog (Turning Straw to Gold) is excellent also.

      I’m so glad you understood the meaning of that image ๐Ÿ™‚ It can be so freeing to know you are just nothing, dust in the universe, and you will turn back to dust in the end. Sounds depressing but I like knowing that what happens to me isn’t really a big deal after all. This is the first image that inspired this thought: https://www.instagram.com/p/BVgHmykgtUL/?taken-by=hangingpixels_photo_art
      But I wasn’t sure as to the copyright of embedding it in my post, so I chose an image free from restrictions. I hope you enjoy it and sending love back to you. x

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      1. Oh you weren’t parroting at all! I just meant that I got the same click of pieces fitting together, helped me understand. And thankyou for sharing that other image. Yes. Wow! That’s it exactly x

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  6. A sad read cous, though I don’t disagree. Sometimes I think people just need reasons for comfort, the realities like you’ve described are just too scary otherwise

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