When Cindy Wong was 45, she already had hypertension, thyroid disease, and clinical depression. “I wasn’t taking care of myself,” she remembers, which is understandable, as her husband had left her with a rebellious daughter, two aging parents, and a stressful job.
“I didn’t complain,” she says. “In our culture, you’re not supposed to. Then she found herself in the emergency room, bleeding heavily from what turned out to be uterine cancer. Facing yet another illness, Cindy reached her limit. She told me:
Lying there, waiting for surgery, I promised, ‘If I make it through this, I’m going to start doing something for myself.’ I couldn’t have told you what that meant, but I’d been taking care of everyone but me, and that had to change.
Afterward, I went to the hospital’s health education department to see what they had. I signed up for stress reduction programs and stretching classes. Later, I started exercising and meditating.
It took me years to realize I had to put myself first. I cut back work to four days a week. I still take care of my parents; I’m still there for my daughter, but I make sure to get to my programs and do my meditation every day. My self-esteem is higher, and my family relationships are actually better than ever. I have more energy, and my health has been improving.
Cindy had a choice — stay a nice girl and die slowly, or stop being nice and fight back. I’ve been saying this for years. When you have a long-term illness, you can still be a good person. You can care about people; you can even help people. But you can’t afford to be nice, because “nice” means putting other people’s wants ahead of your own needs. You will never be able to take care of yourself if you’re worried about what other people think all the time.
Does any of this ring a bell for you? Over the years, I have heard from readers like Ephrenia, who has spent much of her life fighting for and caring for people with mental illness. “Now,” she wrote, “I’ve got arthritis, asthma, diabetes, and major depression. I worked so hard caring for others, I ended up disabled myself.”
Are you taking care of everyone else, or providing for everyone, to the point that it’s making you sick? What does it take to get to the point where you put yourself first? When do you start fighting back? When do you stop being nice?
I wasn’t the first one to figure this out. In Dr. Bernie Siegel’s book Love, Medicine, and Miracles, he gives case stories of people who healed from cancer when they started standing up for themselves. For example, one woman’s T-cell activity went up dramatically when she stopped answering phone calls from her ex-husband. Other people who could not stop being nice tended to sicken faster and die quicker.
Gabor Maté, MD, says that we have to learn to say no to people. If we don’t, our bodies will say no for us by getting sick or even dying. His book When the Body Says No reports dozens of cases of people with different chronic conditions who had to learn to say no.
Why do so many of us want so much to be nice? There’s nothing wrong with helping others or with sharing. In fact, that’s how life works. But if we don’t put time into ourselves, we won’t be able to help anyone else. We’ll get sicker, which makes everyone else’s life harder.
I think it’s one thing to do things for people because you want to. It’s totally different to be nice because you think it’s the only way to be loved. Or if you’re afraid others will be angry with you if you’re not so nice. A lot of us learn those habits and beliefs as children and have trouble letting go of them.
But people who love you will not be upset if you take time for yourself. It may take them a minute to get used to the change in you, but as Cindy Wong told me, “I found out that they were really OK with my saying no. In fact, my daughter congratulated me.”
As everyone on this site knows, you can fight back all you want and work as hard as you can, and diabetes will still be in your life. In Cindy’s case, she will never be able to throw away her medicines or party like a teenager. But she has taken control of her life, stabilized her condition, improved her general health, and become a positive, lively person who is a joy to be around. I think that’s more important than being nice.
So are you fighting back? Or are you being nice? Or can you do both? I struggle with this every day myself, so I would love to hear from you.