• The Bossy Bookworm

Review of What Doesn't Kill You by Tessa Miller

Miller outlines many of the frightening, difficult, relentless aspects of coping with a chronic illness. She lays a journalistic view over some of her personal experiences and offers advice to those affected by chronic illness.

“I needed a book written by someone who exists in that foggy space between the common cold and terminal cancer, where illness doesn’t go away but won’t kill you. I needed someone who lives every single day with illness to tell me that (1) I wasn’t alone and (2) my life was going to change in unexpected, difficult, and surprisingly beautiful ways.”

The subtitle of Miller's memoir What Doesn't Kill You is A Life with Chronic Illness--Lessons from a Body in Revolt.

Miller was a twentysomething writer in New York City when she began having odd symptoms, terrible pain, and mysterious physical issues. After multiple misdiagnoses and increasing discomfort and fear, she was ultimately diagnosed with Crohn's disease.

“I became a professional patient, and a good one. I learned that bodies can be inexplicably resilient and curiously fragile. I would never get better, and that would change everything: the way I think about my body, my health, my relationships, my work, and my life. When things get rough, people like to say, this too shall pass. But what happens when 'this' never goes away?”


In What Doesn't Kill You, Miller explores the isolation of enduring chronic disease and her own personal experiences coping with pain and uncertainty. She traces her own debilitating symptoms and her significant, life-threatening complications and severe flares of the disease. She spends substantial page time laying out the weaknesses of our country's health care system, and she offers footnoted information about chronic illness, its treatment, and related issues.

I mentioned this book way back in June as part of my Greedy Reading List Three Books I'm Reading Now, 6/14/21 Edition. It took me a while to get through it because of the sometimes grueling reading.

Chronic illness can be heavy, sobering, relentless, shocking, cruel, painful, frightening, and devastating. What Doesn't Kill You may be illuminating--especially if you or someone you know copes with chronic illness. I also found it somewhat personally triggering, which isn't a judgment, but it was my reaction.

Miller's view gets broad at times, and her focus occasionally seems to stretch beyond the scope of what I felt the book was about--her facts, backed up with sources, range from those related to issues surrounding problematic health care providers (this feels somewhat off topic when it stretches into issues of sexual and other abuse by doctors) to health care inequalities and various other subjects.

“…I sometimes miss being in the hospital…. It was nice, in a way, to just lie there and be taken care of. To be sick, openly, without worrying about pretending otherwise.”

Some of Miller's exploration of chronic illness that I found most interesting included potential sibling resentment, unusual parent-child dynamics (related to body autonomy and personal space, for example), friend frustration (such as the popular “get better already” message, whether unspoken or verbalized), and unexpected possible positive outcomes, such as post-traumatic growth.

Miller is a journalist, but I felt that her footnotes, statistics, and summaries of various findings brought me out of the heart of the book, as did her coping advice--although that aspect could certainly be valuable for a reader seeking resources and practical information. This all felt far less meaningful to me than her detailed accounts of specific scenes in her life and the pivotal (large and small) moments she went through. Her particular personal experiences, her hard-fought wisdom, and her thoughtful reflections about her own situation were the strengths of the book for me.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

Other books about chronic illness that look potentially valuable and interesting but that I haven't yet read include: Life Disrupted: Getting Real About Chronic Illness in Your Twenties and Thirties and You Don't Look Sick! Living Well with Invisible Chronic Illness.