A s a palliative care doctor in NYC during the beginning of the pandemic, my typical greeting response of “I’m fine” was speedily replaced with “I’m hanging in there.” It seemed slightly less false (because who’s really “fine” amid a global pandemic?), and soon it was the only response I heard throughout the hospital. The truth is that I was quite literally falling apart, the furthest from “fine” I’d ever been. I had lost all sense of self and purpose, swept up in the enormity of the suffering I witnessed every day, coupled with the spiraling anxiety that I couldn’t control the events of the world, much less my own emotions. I saw no way out, and the deeper I withdrew, the more I was trapped in a quarantine of my mind’s own making.
A minuscule deviation from our own truth may not mean much at the moment. Perhaps we don’t even realize that we’re not as put together as we think. But over time, the lies we tell ourselves are akin to little cracks in the glass window to our souls. These cracks grow and expand with each added insult and life pressure until a tipping point is reached, and the next fracture causes the pane to shatter into a thousand pieces. As innocent and routine as these mistruths feel, the soul keeps track.
After months of psychotherapy and introspection, I’ve landed on a new phrase that is kinder and gentler and allows for the possibility of simply being human. On days when my world is upside down, my head is screwed on sideways, and the sum total of my calorie intake and bathroom breaks is a golden goose egg, I now say: “It sucks, and I’m doing what I can.”
It acknowledges that life isn’t peonies and butterflies and that in this very moment when I’m feeling pretty crummy, it sucks. The second half offers up the compassion we don’t often give ourselves. We’re doing what we can with the resources that we have. It merely allows for the situation as is, without pretense or expectation.
Language matters. What we say to ourselves matters. “It sucks, and I’m doing what I can” wasn’t the panacea that lifted me from the depths of despair, but it jump-started the process toward recovery, because I finally acknowledged my feelings rather than pushing them aside.
Go ahead, tell yourself, “This is the breadth of the human experience, and I’m only human.” There is immense beauty and strength in that vulnerability.
Luyi Kathy Zhang is a palliative care physician.