Scary Diagnoses on This Week's Dear Sugar

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.

Dear Sugars, will you adopt me?

Dear Sugars, will you adopt me?

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.

I’ve become so afraid: a germaphobe, scared of accidents, doctor visits, I’m afraid my daughter will end up back in the hospital, and I’m afraid to leave her with others. I’m scared all the time. Each decision I make feels like it has a heavy ‘What if?’ attached to it...I feel broken, like my insides have been scraped out.
...Above all, I want advice on how to live a life I wouldn’t have chosen if I had a choice. To not just survive it, but to make something positive with it, and learn how to live with an unknown future ahead of us.
— Letter writer, Half A Heart, Dear Sugar Radio Episode 28

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.

As I thought about this letter, I thought ‘there is no pep talk that we could instill, or even inspiring words that I would attempt to muster in the face of this much bad data, this much struggle.’
...Sometimes there is no logical explanation for what human beings are asked to withstand, and the only thing they get is that they somehow contend with those things and are tested, and the only thing they can do is esteem everything that they’re struggling with.
— Steve Almond, Dear Sugar Radio Episode 28

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.

What we’re talking about is not hopelessness, but sorrow—and there is a difference...and that’s where I think we can sometimes get stuck. And I think sometimes we get stuck in that place because we mistake one for the other.
...When you have a situation that you can’t control, that you don’t get to choose, the only thing you can do is figure out how to accept it...This is an opportunity for you to say to yourself, ‘It’s okay that I don’t wanna accept it,’ to rail against that, and to feel and fully inhabit that sorrow you have about not getting the life you wanted.
— Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar Radio Episode 28

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.

I don’t know if I would be able to handle it, and that’s part of what I want to say to Half A Heart as well: You are handling it. You didn’t just stumble, you got knocked down, and then while you were down on the ground you got kicked a few times. And to even withstand that, to be tested in that way and still be able to get your head around what you’re struggling with, and the questions that you wanna be able to answer, and the good outcomes that you wanna be able to reach is pretty extraordinary. One of the things that happens when you suffer a lot of misfortune is that it very quickly can curdle into a kind of self pity, and I don’t feel that here. I feel somebody honestly grappling with the fact that they know that it’s dark to feel jealous and envious, and they know that they should be more dignified and more noble. Those are the stories we tell about ourselves until something really bad happens, and THEN we figure out who we are...even to withstand it in the moment is a Big Thing. Most people are just not tested in this way. The fact that you are thinking about your life and examining it, as painful as it is, that is all you can do at the moment.
— Steve Almond, Dear Sugar Radio Episode 28

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.

When you move beyond that sorrow is when you start answering those other questions you have—that you don’t want to just survive that sorrow, you want to make something positive with it. You’re just not there yet, but those things are to come.

...We wish you luck, we are on your side, and we know in our hearts that you can live with beauty and light.
— Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar Radio Episode 28

Cheryl Strayed's Dear Sugar columns were published as a book called Tiny Beautiful Things, and I really can't recommend it enough.