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The problem with chicken soup

November 12, 2013
by Sue Bergeson
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I have a lot of soup:  Nine containers of homemade frozen soup and thirteen cans of store-purchased soup at current count. Most of it is chicken soup of some kind, given with love - and crackers. Both the love and the soup are deeply appreciated and needed now because in a few days I will go through another round of chemotherapy for my breast cancer. And, I know I will be unable to leave home for two weeks – the first week due to my symptoms from the chemo, the second because my white blood cell counts will be too low to be around people in public places like grocery stores.

Because I have a loving extended family, I don’t really have to count soup and crackers to feel secure and cared for. My sister will travel over from Michigan to Chicago - where I live -and help me through that often-difficult first week after chemo. She has been with me week after week surrounding me with care.  Other family members will check in, anxious to help out (I have funny stories about craving a certain snack and ending up with a party-sized portion, capable of feeding a small nation!). I also have coworkers, professional acquaintances and even neighbors who have reached out to me in love with cards, gifts and flowers. One day, my neighbor and I met in the middle of the street:  I was bringing her chicken soup to speed her recovery from a small TIA just as she was bringing me chicken soup to help to help during my next “chemo week.”

I was diagnosed with breast and uterine cancer within days after a routine visit to my gynecologist this past summer. The last time anyone in my extended family can remember cancer affecting any of us was over 50 years ago. So, while I was smart enough to know I was not immune to the illness, the diagnosis still came as a terrible shock.

At least now, people know what to do. They call and write, bring flowers and party trays, and deliver freezer-fuls of chicken soup. They tell me I am brave and to keep on fighting.

But, what so many of these truly kind people don’t recognize is that I’ve been fighting nearly all of my life, certainly for the past 40 years. And I’ve got to say that the opponent I’ve been up against — mental illness — has been far tougher, more relentless, and more enduring than any cancer.  Coping with and moving into recovery against mental illness has been the fight of my life.

I have lived with and recovered despite my own mental health challenges. I have worked in leadership positions within nationally known organizations for over twenty years. I have struggled to learn how to support peers, family members, and friends living with mental illnesses. And, I have striven to figure out what I or anyone could do to help my sister, who eventually died - a suicide.

So this is the problem with chicken soup – not now, but back then. No neighbors made me chicken soup when I was so ill that it took all my courage to claw my way out of the house. They didn’t recognize my courage when I had to force my way through a headwind of gut-wrenching despair to get to work, walk the dog, or buy groceries. And, just as sad, I never thought to give a container of soup to friends, loved ones, or co-workers to comfort them when their lives brought burdens that seemed, for a time, too heavy to bear.

As an advocate, I have often said - and have often heard peers say that mental health issues are not considered “casserole worthy.”  We think nothing of providing a casserole for a neighbor or acquaintance dealing with a painful physical injury or illness, but somehow, mental illnesses are still considered too shameful or embarrassing to easily or openly acknowledge in such a way. And even those of who should know better – those of us in the behavioral health field, peers and providers alike – still miss the mark.

Beneath my genuine gratitude, there’s more than a twinge of sadness at when I look at all of that soup and consider the goodness of all who brought it to me. Where was this physical embodiment of support for all those years of mental illness? Why couldn’t it have been available then, when I faced those difficult and painful days? And, why isn’t it available now for my peers, those who are currently struggling?

Let me share two pictures with you (in the photo gallery to the left). The first shows me during the height of one of my mental health struggles. It is a popular and well circulated picture among family because - let’s face it - my dog is darn cute. But I find it difficult to look at this picture, because I see only deep despair, a woman hanging on to life by her fingertips.

Yet, it seemed that no one else could see that. To the few that did see me more clearly, there was little clarity about what they could do to help. In retrospect, I know I was loved, but there was no chicken soup for me during these months and years of struggle. No cards, emails, calls, flowers. None of the embodiment of love that I see today.  

And next in the gallery is the second picture. Here I am, in all my bald self as I go through chemo. So yeah, I am not attractive, big deal. But my eyes are clear, my smile is real. What I am going through is not easy or pleasant, but I guarantee you I am nowhere near as close to death as I was in the last picture. And I have twenty one containers of soup to help me recover.