Envy is an emotion that the majority of us don’t aspire to experience and don’t readily admit. However, it is believed to be a universal feeling that has been observed as early as infancy. Envy gets lumped in with the rest of “negative” emotions like anger, sadness, and guilt, for example. Some psychologists even believe that envy rises out of shame or insecurity. As a therapist, I used to agree with this theory, and spent years trying to coax awareness of this emotion out of my clients so that they could move through and beyond it to healthier, more adaptive functioning.
Growing up I never would have described myself as an envious person. I would admit to being moody and overly sensitive at times if pressed to share some of my own “negative” emotions, yet envy was not one I experienced much. Then I became a caregiver for a child with a chronic, life threatening illness, and my own awareness, experience and understanding of envy changed significantly. I know now envy more intimately than I care to, and it shows itself on the harder, darker days that come with caregiving for a child with complex needs.
I want to preface this by sharing that I don’t envy those with vast material goods, beauty, or status, which is usually conjured up when we hear the word envy. Instead, I have learned that there is another level or type of envy I hadn’t been conscious of before being introduced to the medically complex world I now live in. Bear with me, please, as I tell you about my new, personal discovery of envy. This envy could be best described as being jealous of the ease, routine, and typical nature of a life not so entwined and entrenched in dealing with illness or special needs on a constant basis. Put simply, I envy those with more breathing room and respite from illness and medical complexity.
Envy appears for me when I am having one of those days when everything that can go wrong will, and I’m feeling like we are constantly trying to swim upstream against my son’s diagnosis. These are the days when I feel weighed down by all the extra effort it takes to do some of the most basic and mundane daily activities that others who are healthy or have healthy loved ones take for granted. Sometimes I get envious when I see others enjoy a normal meal with their children (my son is TPN dependent for the bulk of his nutritional needs, and while he can taste food, he is not able to pass it effectively or safely through his intestines).
Envy creeps in when I get weary of constantly tracking input (how much fluid he takes by mouth) and output (how much fluid comes out of his ileostomy). I get envious when I see others do things with relative ease, like plan vacations, visit friends and family that live far away, and travel beyond a certain radius of the only trusted children’s hospital that knows my son’s medical history and has at least one doctor who has heard of the rare illness that he was born with. I admit to envy of those whose big outings with their children are not centered around clinic visits or hospitalizations. My new version of envy involves wishing I did not have to do daily medical procedures, dressing changes, and medication administration that sometimes cause pain or discomfort to my son because it is necessary to his well-being (even if he doesn’t fully comprehend this yet).
Luckily, there are more days than not over the last four years of my son’s life that I don’t have to grapple with envy. Envy disappears pretty quickly when I think of the high probability that I would miss every single task listed above should my son have a foreshortened future and he was no longer with us. These are the days when I gladly shoulder all the extras and instead focus on the multitude of experiences we can have. These are the days I realize there are numerous activities and luxuries that we have in spite of his chronic illness that other parents or caregivers wish they had. On these days I am able to count our blessings, and agree that caregivers of those with special needs have increased insight into what’s really important in life, along with a deeper, experiential recognition of the smallest victories or blessings.
I appreciate the richness in moments that are often overlooked, due to daily reminders that nothing is guaranteed in this life. Gratitude in spite of challenges is a more admirable emotion to which I aspire. If gratitude requires me to first acknowledge my envy, I will.