The Phoenix Zine

Peeling the Onion


When my friend recommended the book Peeling the Onion by Wendy Orr as an answer to some of the questions I’ve been asking myself, I scoffed at her. How could a book about a young woman who finds herself suddenly physically disabled have anything to say to me about dealing with a chronic illness?

Turns out, quite a bit. In fact, I went from 13 pages of quotes to 20 pages by the time I finished copying down all the passages I liked and related to.

What I like best about Orr’s book is she isn’t afraid to explore the grief often accompanying illness and disability. Anna, the main character, finds herself struggling to recover from a car accident that has broken her neck and changed her from a karate champion into someone who has trouble walking and is in constant pain.

The main question Anna finds herself faced with and one I’ve been asking myself lately is: why keep fighting? And just so we’re clear, I’m not talking about life and death medical situations. When faced with chronic illness, sometimes getting through the day is a battle in itself. Fighting for life can range from taking your medications as directed, to getting through tests, treatments and doctors’ appointments, to just finding the strength to get out of bed in the morning. Or realising that staying in bed would be best for your body that day.

But sometimes finding a reason to keep fighting and not give up seems like an impossible feat.

In Peeling the Onion, Anna makes a promise to her mother she will not harm herself and not breaking her promise becomes her reason to go on. Later in the novel, Anna’s memory of the accident comes back in a tearful, frightening episode with her mother. After the episode ends, Anna’s mom asks her, “That promise you made me … now that you know how hard you fought to stay alive, aren’t you glad you didn’t waste it?”

Anna responds in thought.

‘She’s right. The worst of this whole thing has been the total powerlessness, being controlled by my broken body – its pain, its X-rays, diagnoses and bad news doctors. But I was the one who decided to stay alive. And if I won that fight, losing some of the smaller ones doesn’t seem so bad. Throwing in the big one now would have been really stupid.’

When the situation is life or death, basic survival instinct takes over the body. It isn’t until after the life and death crisis has passed fighting for life becomes a choice. Everyone needs to find their own reasons to fight.

Reasons to fight can be found in many places. When I was a teen in high school my reason was graduating. Since I’ve graduated one of my reasons has become seeing my little niece grow up. Having reasons to go on motivates me to fight every day and gives me courage to face an uncertain future.

The reason doesn’t even have to be a big one. My motivation for getting though my upcoming heparin shots and liver biopsy is because I know shortly after the CFL football season starts and I’m looking forward to using my season tickets.

When selecting reasons to fight, two things are important to keep in mind. The first is you should never only have one reason to fight. When I graduated high school and achieved my reason, I found myself feeling like my life was over. I had been so single-minded about graduating for such a long time that when I made it, I felt lost about what to do next and whether I should go on.

The second thing is if you have achieved one of your reasons or you have to give it up, you need to replace it as soon as possible so your reasons don’t dwindle down to one.

Finding your reasons to fight encourage dreaming about the future. They’re about having hope and seeing the good and beauty in an otherwise difficult life. As Anna realises and tells us, life is a choice. I know all the fighting I’ve done to survive has allowed me to do stuff like be with my family, be present when my niece was born, and start and maintain this web site. For me, and I hope for you, life has been worth the fight.

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