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Why I Don't Like the Phrase 'Get Better'

As children we are generally taught a simple way of looking at health: you get sick, you get better. Rather than explain death or long-term disease to children, we tell them that people just “get better.” That was always the word that was used for my childhood illnesses, that I would get “better.” Just looking at that word alone, it feels like a wrong choice. “Better” implies that there is something wrong with being sick, and that the main goal when someone is sick is to make them good again.

It’s an alienating phrase for someone with chronic ill health. Even during my teenage struggles with depression and lifelong battle with anxiety, I was constantly told that at some point I would “grow out of it” or be “better.”

“Better” also carries the idea that it’s always preferable to be in peak physical and mental health. That’s a preference some in the disability and disease communities disagree with.

Personally, even though I know I may never be cured from many of my conditions, I have some deep part of myself that hopes I’ll suddenly become “better.” That my pain and suffering will be lifted and I can have a life more like my able-bodied, neuro-typical friends.

The idea of “better” was also inherent in the way I was schooled. I went to school with a lot of other very bright kids, and the competition between us was fierce and encouraged. If you wanted to be the best, you didn’t just have to be the smartest, you had to work longer and harder than anyone else. It can be difficult to feel that your best is good enough when you look to your left and see the national champion of whatever right beside you.

I also internalized that attitude towards my health. I have always inherently thought that my health was a reflection on myself, of how much effort I put into getting “better.” Any difficulties were a fatal flaw in my very being. It’s a view society encourages; we’re told to take control of our own health, and that what we do is a direct reflection not only on ourselves but on how others may perceive us. There’s little room in such a world for someone whose health is so often completely beyond their control.

We tell school children to be responsible, to eat well and exercise and that that will somehow give a guarantee of good health. The reality is much more harsh and unpredictable. There are millions of stories of good people suddenly struck down with unimaginable difficult, prolonged or even deadly conditions. In teaching our children that their health is their responsibility, aren’t we at some level telling them that they may be at fault for their own illnesses?

In the blame game of serious illness, it’s difficult to come to terms with the idea that the body you have nurtured from the moment you were born may be failing you in a way you cannot control. No conscious effort on my part will change the inflammation levels in my brain and body, nor can it prevent more cancers following the one I’ve already treated. I have done everything in my power to give my self the best change – exercise, de-stress, meditate, eat well, take medications properly, tell doctors every time something changes – but the indications of my conditions are still there in black and white. My migraines are still “stroke-like,” my blood tests still come back wrong.

Rationally I understand that these things are not in my control; that no action of mine caused my cancer or any of my conditions. But without anyone else to blame, it’s hard not to doubt. Whenever someone asks me if I’m “better yet,” it’s difficult not to immediately correct him or her with the realities of my chronic ill health.

A more hopeful discussion would be two-fold: one, genuinely ask people “How are you?” rather than “Are you better?” And two, be prepared to give an answer other than “good,” particularly if things aren’t going well.

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Thinkstock photo by SasinParaksa