When 'Jokes' About My Chronic Illness Turned Into Emotional Abuse
Be it mental or physical, anyone with a long-term and incurable illness will likely have received their fair share of skepticism, blame and disdain from people around you. Whether it’s in a romantic or platonic relationship, gas-lighting and emotional manipulation can easily develop when you don’t feel healthy in your body and mind. Sometimes even those closest to you don’t understand, or simply don’t want to, and this can make the isolation that comes with these conditions so much worse.
It took me a long time to realize that I had been close to someone who completely invalidated me and turned every situation into my fault. This would range from, “You’re just having a period,” as I was sweating and crying from pain to “jokes” about how no one would want to be with me now that I was “broken.” From others, there were also the “you’re just lazy” jokes, the constant questioning of what was “actually wrong with me” and the accusations that I was being “hysterical.” And can I just stress that these were comments made which were “jokes.” Totally harmless jokes that made me deeply upset, self-conscious and ultimately void of self-esteem because I started to believe them. I’m the first person to laugh at my own misfortune because it is essentially my coping mechanism, but it was obvious there was something sinister (and often misogynistic) beneath these comments.
These kinds of jokes are emotional abuse. What led those people to constantly undermine me and what I was going through was nothing to do with me. If it’s happened to you, I can promise it’s nothing to do with you either. I was so good at justifying the way they treated me and spoke to me that I simply couldn’t understand how it wasn’t my fault. I was lazy, I was being overly dramatic, I was a burden, I was boring. It was something fundamentally “wrong” with me that someone had just happened to pick up on.
This was such a familiar thought pattern for me then. It wasn’t until I started medication for depression and moved away and allowed myself to reflect on that time that I realized to what extent that person had damaged my confidence, my ability to be vulnerable as well as my judgements on what was normal and what was ill treatment.
Although in that one relationship, there were very blatantly unacceptable comments, there were much more subtle suggestions that the way I felt was my fault, or me being overly dramatic. It came from employers, people I dated, acquaintances. They were little things that would chip away at my already eroded self-worth, like being passive aggressive when I called in sick, or raised eyebrows when I attempted to talk about how what was going on physically was affecting me mentally.
I had no boundaries at this point in my life. I thought relationships were built on endless empathy, compromise and struggle. I would have all the time, patience and kindness in the world for the other person and none whatsoever for myself. I would tell myself they didn’t realize they were upsetting me, they were only joking and would torture myself over how much of an inconvenience I must be.
Long-term illnesses will deplete your self-worth if you’re not very careful with yourself. There’s a reason that I constantly bang on about self-care. I didn’t know how to be careful then and I don’t know now, but I am much better because I actively choose sensitive and positive people to surround myself with. You do not have to put up with people’s comments and opinions about something that only you truly understand. Especially in a romantic relationship because I know the guilt can become overwhelming when it comes to the horrific combo of depression and endometriosis. I definitely don’t have all the answers, but when I feel myself slipping into a potentially unhealthy situation with someone I ask myself if I would treat them the way they’ve treated me. If it’s a no, it’s over. If they have upset you and don’t want to take responsibility for that, it’s not OK. If they don’t apologize, it’s not OK. If they endlessly repeat the same negative behavior with the promise of changing, run a mile. Setting your own boundaries whilst being totally honest with yourself is the best thing you can do.
Through a change in my life plan, moving city and spending a long time trying to understand where my feelings of complete apathy towards my own mental and physical health came from, I realized there was nothing wrong with me. Most importantly, I realized that I was not to blame for anything I’d experienced. Even doctors can be less than helpful, particularly when it comes to endometriosis. From the consultant who asked me “why I hadn’t made more of a fuss” after surgery, to the doctor who told me that pregnancy was a cure, sometimes you have to call people out on their blatant disregard for your condition. It’s hard, and luckily for me, I have caring and outspoken parents who were happy to call out these people and tell them that it’s just not good enough.
I write this knowing for a fact that every person who reads it and has been through a similar experience will know what I’m talking about. We live in an extremely ableist world that will relentlessly make you feel guilty for what you’re not capable of doing. We also live in a world that loves to deny women’s pain and invalidate their emotions. Remember that you deserve compassion, sensitivity and understanding, and although it is a never ending battle, you have to know that there are people out there who want to give it to you. I love when people message me their stories and the feeling of solidarity I get from speaking to people who are open and kind about their experiences. Ending on a seriously cheesy note: human connection and shared experiences are infinitely healing.
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