Did you know that before Cheryl Strayed came to fame because of her hit memoir-turned-Reese Witherspoon starring film, Wild, she wrote a really, really good advice column for The Rumpus? She did! And before she doled out advice as Sugar, the author Steve Almond filled those shoes. Now they both act as Sugar on the Dear Sugar podcast from WBUR, and it's great. Their "radically empathetic" approach to the letters they get is enough to make me consider writing them, and asking them to adopt me, at least once a week.
On this week's episode of Dear Sugar Radio, "When Bad Things Happen," Cheryl and Steve answer two letters from people facing scary diagnoses: an artist and graphic designer, dealing with Major Depression, and facing the loss of his sight after a diagnosis of Glaucoma; and the mother of a little girl, born with a congenital heart defect and facing a lifetime of health and accessibility challenges, while also dealing with her husband's recent Bipolar Disorder diagnosis, and her own diagnostic journey with a recently discovered spinal lesion.
It's some pretty heavy stuff, but as usual, the Sugars offer deeply thoughtful comfort and advice to the letter writers in this episode. It reminded me how scary it can be to receive a life altering diagnosis, which is something I often forget. My own diagnostic process was so long and drawn out that finally learning I had an incurable genetic disease was actually one of the best days of my life. But it was only the first day of another long journey, of learning to live with the fear, uncertainty, and instability that condition brings.
So if you're having a hard time coming to terms with the reality of you or your loved one's body, and the grim future it seems to have, I recommend you take a listen. It may not help, and you may think they're full of shit. On the flip side, their willingness to touch on the darkness that often accompanies these life changes may be "too negative" for some. That's okay, but their words are something to consider; the Sugars, as always, do a wonderful job of balancing both hope and loss.
The Sugars invite their letter writers to allow themselves to experience the grief that often accompanies these situations. They encourage their writers to let themselves feel, experience, and honor the challenges presented by their complicated situations, because it is impossible to rebuild our lives while still clinging to the life we had planned. This is something that many of us living with chronic health conditions experience, and almost no one ever warns us that it's a process we must all go through.
They talk a lot in this episode about being "tested" by the issues facing their letter writers, which is something I would usually find very off-putting. In this context, they are not talking about being tested by a "higher power" for some lesson, or anything to that effect. What they're talking about is that sometimes life is really fucking hard, and it can really test our patience and resilience. It's something not everyone can handle, and for those of us that do have to wake up every day and face that fear and uncertainty, it can be helpful to remember that we've gotten through 100% of our worst days so far, and that's a pretty good track record.
Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar columns were published as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things, and I really can't recommend it enough.