To prepare for writing my book about living with chronic illness I wanted to find a way to describe the person with chronic illness without having to say ‘person with chronic illness’ all the time.

Fishing around in my mind I came up with some petty lame efforts. It was hard to conjure up anything that didn’t smack of victim-ness, the opposite of what this book is about. Then ‘the Chronic Illness Wrangler’ popped up. Hmmmm…

I’m a cowgirl from Kansas who grew up with horses, so the idea of a wrangler has happy connotations for me. Nellie, (our little quarter horse mix mare when I was a kid), was full of energy and fun to ride. Or she was unless she got spooked and bolted. Kind of like the way my disease took over my body. Therefore… the Chronic Illness Wrangler: the illness is the horse that needs to be lassoed and trained to behave. The wrangler does the training. Get it?

When I was first diagnosed with scleroderma and for a couple of years after that, my doctors described the illness as ‘galloping.’ They said it was a nice way of saying the disease was running away with me and no one could tell me where it was headed. Did they say nice?

Then again, maybe it helped that I actually knew what it was like to be on a run away horse. The panic, both mine and Nellie’s, the noise, the wind, the desperate prayers to stay on, or if I fell off, the plea that I’d land on something that didn’t kill me. Galloping? Hell. Try riding a rocket!

Did it help that I knew that to stop a run away horse you needed to keep your head and think, know that the run couldn’t last forever and that what the frantic horse needed was guidance? As long as I could keep my head, I didn’t yank back on the reins, causing her more panic. As long as I could think, I kept my center of balance with my mare’s and stayed on. As long as I could think, I chose not to think of every possible woodchuck hole she could fall into.

Best of all, as long as I could think I could remember that to stop a run away horse you reached down on the rein and turned her head firmly to one side. Whoa!

Without knowing it my doctors gave me a metaphor I could live with.

My twice monthly appointment during that time didn’t amount to much more than the nurses and physicians tut-tutting about how the disease had progressed. Pain management was reduced to a game of ‘What non-steroidal shall we try this week?” I would go home despondent, feeling empty and powerless.

Until I remembered the run away horse.

All at once I was the cowgirl wrangler ready to outrace any stupid galloping illness. It wasn’t much but it was what I had. No matter how long it took, I was ready to ride this baby out. Just keep a cool head and stay on. As long as I could think, I could reach down, turn this crazy mount’s head and gain control again. Whoa!

Photo courtesy Kristian M via Flickr