Living Well: The Bell Curve

Living Well: The Bell Curve

Sometimes when you are hurting all or most of the time, it seems like life itself has turned against you, like you’ve been singled out for suffering.

Understandably, in these bleak times, it’s hard to avoid feeling sorry for yourself. The problem is that self-pity doesn’t make you feel any better, or reduce the stress of the pain. It just digs you even deeper into that emotional black hole that is so hard to escape.

I found a way to think about life with pain and sickness that helped me move my gaze off my own suffering and take a bit wider view.

We’ve all heard of the bell-shaped curve; also called normal distribution. It tells us that if you take a population and plot it based on a characteristic of that population, most (nearly 70%) will land at the top of the curve, as average or normal.

There will be a small sample at either end, fewer than 3%, who are extremely good or bad, or weak or strong, the label depending on what is being measured.

School teachers sometimes use the bell curve to assign grades, so only 3% of students get an A or an F.

I decided to consider the whole world and all its people in terms of sickness and health; and then think about where I would land if I placed myself on this bell-shaped curve.

Where Do You Fit on the Bell Curve?

  Sickest People                           Average People                      Healthiest People

joy selak chart

I figured those at the top, the most average people, would have illness in their lives. They might also have inherited tendencies, say for allergies or high blood pressure, and still be counted among the average. Average people would get seasonal colds and flus. Most would probably have a surgery in their lifetime for some reason.

I imagined the healthiest people might be citizens from those remote mountain villages who all live to be 100 years old. Maybe it would include world-class athletes performing at their absolute peak. Healthy young people could also fall at this extreme end, not yet affected by the failing health and frailty that accompanies old age.

So who would be at other end of the curve, the sickest people? Perhaps babies born into poverty and filth, with little chance of surviving their first year. Or a terminally ill person with very little time left. A person who is alive but not participating in life, like someone in a coma, I would count among the sickest.

I’d also include people who die from preventable, treatable illnesses because they are offered no treatment, due to ignorance, injustice or a remote location. These are the people the Gates Foundation is working so hard to reach with new vaccines. There are also those infected with an untreatable virulent bacteria, their physicians and loved ones standing by helplessly watching their suffering and inevitable death.

After I plotted out the curve this way, I asked myself, where would I fall? I have multiple diagnoses of chronic conditions, all involving pain. All are treatable, but none have a known cure at this time. This can’t be average.

Conversely, I do have access to health care, I am not terminal and I am not isolated or in dire poverty. I live in an advanced, affluent nation. I have benefited from treatment, medications, surgery, alternative therapies and my own lifestyle changes.

Even with the depth of my pain, I have to acknowledge that I land closer to the average middle than I do to the extreme sickest end. Realizing this has been humbling, as it’s made me consider the extreme suffering of so many others relative to my own. I feel appreciation for the benefits I have that so many do not.

As I consider the big scheme of things and realize my place in it, I find I lighten up a bit, and that’s a good thing.

Joy Selak

Joy Selak

Joy Selak lives in Austin, TX. She has been diagnosed with Interstitial Cystitis, Fibromyalgia, Mixed Connective Tissue Disease and Trigeminal Neuralgia.

Her book, You Don’t LOOK Sick! Living Well with Invisible Chronic Illness, takes readers through the four phases of chronic illness experience — Getting Sick, Being Sick, Grief and Acceptance, and Living Well — and is written from the alternating perspective of a patient and her physician.

Joy has two websites, Joy Writes and Chronic Invisible Illness. Her blog is You Don’t LOOK Sick.

The information in this column is not intended to be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Only your doctor can do that!  It is for informational purposes only and represent the author’s personal experiences and opinions alone. It does not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of National Pain Report or Microcast Media.

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Authored by: Joy Selak, Columnist