When You Tell the Sick Girl She’s Lucky Because 'At Least You're Skinny Now'
When I was in the eighth grade, my class took a monumental trip to Washington, D.C. Monumental in that, at the age of 14, this trip marked the first taste of autonomy (however simulated) many of us had ever had. Responsible only for checking in with our chaperones at designated locations and hours throughout the day, we were free to museum-hop, site-see, or sprawl out onto D.C.’s vast blankets of grass as we saw fit.
This liberation stopped just short of reaching me, however, as I became one of four students in my class who’d contracted the 24-hour flu and was forced to instead explore the underwhelming, less-than-remarkable blankets of my hotel room.
Upon my return to school, many groans and aches later, I was greeted by a teacher of mine at the time, who noted my “impressive” weight loss. I explained to him that I had been ill, but graciously noted that I was feeling much better, to which he careened his glance and said, “Maybe you should try getting sick more often.”
I will let that sink in for you as it did for me — slowly, and with the same creeping ache of my flu-ridden muscles when asked to fight too much harm away.
A decade later, I was met with an autoimmune disorder which called for an instant and severe cutback on most aspects of my diet. At first, most days I found myself too tired to leave the house, too panicked to formulate clear thoughts, too sick to my stomach to walk very far. If I ate outside my restricted diet, I experienced a scary and immediate bundle of side effects — hives, minor (but not-so-fun) throat restriction, panic attacks, etc. After much reluctance, followed by a desperate recognition of my own medical necessity for help, I made a wide array of lifestyle shifts and treatment choices, all of which caused a notable and sudden weight loss. All this rapid change was scary, but I was determined to jump back into my own bones and move around a little. Feel bike gears shift underfoot. Dance with a boy in a sweaty, irradiated room.
Not for nothing, I grew into this shift in life, just as you grow into any other that crashes into you. I had no choice. I wasn’t thrilled, but I was dealing with it, in the feeling-very-sorry-for-myself-at-times sense that one deals with things. But I was cognizant of my mental processing, and actively making attempts to feel less sorry every day.
What I did not expect was that neck-deep into my efforts, I would also have to devise a way for others to process this information too, in order to proactively avoid discomfort, overblown sympathy, or awkwardness. You can’t just blurt out your alcohol allergy anytime someone alludes to a funny moment from their night (*guilty*). You can’t just break down your list of symptoms to a stranger who happens to be eating lunch near you (*also guilty*). But, sometimes you feel compelled to explain why you can’t eat the meal someone so thoughtfully prepared, why you can’t drink to cheer a moment someone so ardently deserved. The nature of an illness that limits your diet and social life is that all at once it is no one’s business and everyone’s business. Whether or not I offered up explanations, my sick days and meekly packed lunches had a voice of their own. And I wanted to be able to control, to some degree, what they had to say.
So after making my immune system the butt of many jokes and casual mentions, I began to hear the same line repeated back to me many times over: “Well, at least it keeps you thin.” And in those moments, I saw that line for the innocuous, well-intentioned small talk that it was meant to be. I laughed it off, played along, served my conversational due diligence. But the same creeping ache arose in a back, un-dusted corner of my self-respect.
This response may seem commonplace to you, or it may seem outrageously unheard of, but the fact remains that it has happened. More frequently than I am comfortable with or even able to comprehend. Every day we mix innocent commentary with these miniature, unintentional erosions, because something is too dark or too immeasurable for us to stomach. In truth, I think if you stare into the face of sick, of all that it means to be sick, if you look at its cage of active loss, it will melt away at your morning coffee and paralyze your day. It will remind you that loss has many cages, and that one day you will encounter some of your own. So you wrap it up, make it cute. Throw a hashtag or a chuckle or a vacant side comment at it.
We poke what we intend as air holes into the tedium and tension of communication, but holes are holes just the same. They can give just as easily as they can take away. And suddenly the infrastructure caves. Suddenly the beams of intention fall in on themselves. And in the rubble lies a culture of shrinking teenage girls hugging cold porcelain on the bathroom floor. This is a culture we create, every day, in every conversation, when we let our discomfort, rather than our compassion, take the wheel.
I am learning to keep this sadness external because I have learned that to live, female, whole-bodied, and consciously happy is to pathologically reject what we are told to feel. Outside of this rejection, we are asked to live a constant apology for our bodies. In media, in workplaces, in late night bedrooms. In offhand comments at family functions. Yet it is not this apology that silences us the most, it is the ways it has now come to disguise itself as positivity. As “health.” It is my teenaged best friend chain-smoking cigarettes while starving herself in the name of this. Fat-shaming articles rewriting themselves in the name of this. A late-night swirl of infomercials rejecting cause and praising only effect in the name of this. Diet fads and dead bodies in the name of this. This falsified idol. This cage of its own.
Somewhere a 14-year-old girl just wants to feel well again. She drinks water and sleeps and stares through plate glass at an uninterrupted world. She wonders why so many would rather her be pretty enough to look at than healthy or happy enough to hold.
And somewhere, when I’m having one of my rougher moments, when I can’t find anywhere to order lunch, or when I want to go out with friends but opt to stay in because my energy level betrays me, I stare into the bony face of what feels like a life I cannot engage with. A bed I cannot leave. A big, fat, glorious city I cannot explore. A city that would love me back in any shape I take and weight I hold, just as soon as I can rise enough to meet it.
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