13 Poems About The Experience Of Chronic Illness
There are 133 million Americans living with a chronic disease, according to the National Health Council. These are diseases that limit a person’s quality of life and ability to perform everyday activities, and they can include everything from autoimmune diseases (which nearly 50 million people in the United States live with) and cancer to addiction and mental illness.
It’s important to note that living with the effects of trauma or managing life with a disability can impact one’s mental and physical health, too, so in many cases, these chronic conditions are rife with variables. To worsen the blow, women generally have to fight harder to be taken seriously at doctor’s visits, while non-binary and trans patients are made to feel invisible while being treated.
Chronic diseases are a growing epidemic, one that demands our attention and respect. When one gets lost in the exhaustion of managing a chronic illness or the isolation and stigma that often comes with being ill, it can be helpful to seek validation and understanding in one's community — and in art.
Writer Meghan O’Rourke wrote in Lit Hub, “The literature of illness remains remarkably impoverished—especially when it comes to describing chronic illness," but it seems times are changing, as more and more voices are fortunately emerging (see: Porochista Khakpour's memoir Sick and the various incredible memoirs exploring addiction.)
As a poet living with chronic illness, I believe poetry is the perfect genre which with to translate the experience of being chronically ill; so much emotion, nuance and honesty can be expressed in such a small space.
Below are 13 honest and haunting poems that explore the experience of living with a chronic illness.
"Type II" by Hieu Minh Nguyen
"I ask for all the ways I can remain
whole & not a vision with missing limbs.
Look at the trees blistering with sap. Goddamnit
look at me! Look at me in the old way
in this new light."
"A Poem For Dope Sickness" by Sarah Nichols
"I turn cannibal desperate at night, gnawing at
my bones, making promises for the next time.
I will not run out. I will not get sick. I will take
"Having It Out With Melancholy" by Jane Kenyon
"Often I go to bed as soon after dinner
as seems adult
(I mean I try to wait for dark)
in order to push away
from the massive pain in sleep’s/
frail wicker coracle."
"Upon Receiving My Inheritance" by William Fargason
"Thank You body I left myself came back
and realized I was still there all along Thank You
mirror the body is always more reliable
than the mind Thank You hands I can still form
into fists underneath the sheets Thank You
doctors for telling me that if my bones fuse
I will be like a tree"
"Ode To The Brain Holes" by Cade Leebron
"You make me hear songs differently, you make me
sing worse. But when my mouth closed, my brain opened up & that’s
okay. (They say when God closes a door, he’ll be sure to open a few
windows in your head.) & I am afraid. Because you are not a hole.
You are scar tissue, hardening into something unfillable."
"Dragon Scales" by Catherine Garbinsky
"In the shower I take a stone and scratch
at my skin, red and dry and itching.
I imagine myself a dragon, sloughing off old scales
to reveal soft shimmering skin underneath.
They called it a disease, but I call it a becoming."
"Ode To All The Drugs That Never Saved" by Monica Lewis
"is it helping? are the shocks still shaking my brain back to okay most days?
today, i wrote this poem.
i am still alive."
"Name My Time Of Death And See What I Do To You" by Max Ritvo
"more horrible than they’re detecting
– I think I’d kill to stay alive,
at least myself,
and if you can’t accept that
you don’t know the angel in my blood"
"Chronic Lyric VI" by Jill Khoury
i can’t quit your trauma drip
something about the endocrine system
enhanced response to painful stimuli
like circling crows like autumn cloud scudding
i am the kitten you thought you drowned"
"Chronic Illness" by Fortesa Latifi
"I’m beginning to question the point of desire
and things are getting bad again. but sometimes
there are more practical things to consider
like co-pays and insurance companies. I stay in bed.
if only things would hurt in a clearer way."
"A Poem About Coming To Grips With Chronic Disease" by Angelika Byczkowski
"Paralyzed by apathy, stubborn
hope insists, after broken wings
and broken legs, after the crash
and pain of loss comes possibility
for something new."
"The Raincoat" by Ada Limón
"When the doctor suggested surgery
and a brace for all my youngest years,
my parents scrambled to take me
to massage therapy, deep tissue work,
osteopathy, and soon my crooked spine
unspooled a bit, I could breathe again,
and move more in a body unclouded
"Leaving The Hospital" by Anya Silver
"Before me, life—mysterious, ordinary—
holding off pain with its muscular wings."