Can a person live a flourishing, purpose-filled life in spite of chronic illness and near constant pain? According to author Suzy Szasz, the answer is a resounding, “yes”. Szasz’s book, Lupus. Living With It: Why You Don’t Have To Be Healthy to Be Happy, is written with an enthusiasm for life. Despite her constant battle with the exhausting chronic illness, Lupus, Szasz retains her meaning in life by refusing to become a victim of her disease.
I was initially interested in reading Suzy Szasz’s book because of my fascination with her father, Thomas Szasz. Her father was famous for being a psychiatrist who opposed coercive psychiatric practices and called mental illness a myth. He saw “mental illness” as a metaphor for “problems of living”.
I’ve written several reviews of Thomas Szasz’s books which you can find on this site. But what I was interested in finding from Suzy’s work was: What does a child of Thomas Szasz’s learn from him? How does her father teach her about living a good life?
Thomas Szasz is famous for criticizing coercive psychiatry, but he also made his living by helping people who would conventionally be described as mentally ill. Unfortunately, he has written very little about the type of help that he gave to his clients to help them overcome their existential problems.
Thomas Szasz once said that the type of “therapy” that is most helpful for a client is the therapy that addresses the existential needs of that particular client. By reading Suzy Szasz’s book I hoped to get a glimpse into the type of advice that he gave to his daughter in dealing with a chronic illness.
From reading Suzy’s book, I found that she is of the same independent spirit as her father. She accepts the existentialist challenge of creating meaning for herself, rather than endlessly searching for meaning. She maintains her dignity by refusing to play the victim role. Although she rightly could have accepted such a role given her situation.
Instead of just blindly accepting the advice of her physicians, she does research for herself, reading journal articles that she can only halfway understand. At one point, she and her father visit a world-renowned physician who specializes in Lupus. The physician fails to address Suzy as a person (making her out to be a mere object) and tells her to dramatically increase her steroid medication. When her father asks about the harmful side effects of the drug, “but doctor, won’t that destroy her bones?”, the specialist glibly responds that her bones are not her concern right now. Rather than accepting the advice, Suzy does her own research and eventually finds a way to keep her disease from flaring up by getting a splenectomy.
The key insight I took away from this stimulating book was to refuse to see yourself as a victim, no matter how tempting it is to do so. Suzy was able to give her life meaning through constantly striving in academics, work, writing, and the refusal to be victimized by a relentless illness. For those of us who still have our health, we should all the more so refuse to be victims of our own making.