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How the 'Laziness Myth' Affects People With Chronic Illness

Recently, I have been studying the laziness myth and how damaging it can be in our capitalist society for those with chronic illness and/or extensive medical needs. I am a mental health specialist, but I am also currently on disability due to chronic illness. My illnesses include fibromyalgia, multiple eating disorders, digestive complications from multiple eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and schizoaffective disorder (SZA).

While my illnesses have influenced my work in mental health by allowing me to help others understand how impactful mental illnesses are on a day-to-day basis, I often find that I need to prioritize my health first. I attend multiple therapy sessions each week, while also seeing a psychiatrist for medication management, and multiple other specialists for my fibromyalgia and digestive problems. Over the past two years, attending to my health has been my main priority, and while I am using what I have been through in my writing to educate and create connection, my health comes first.

Prior to being admitted to the hospital for a severe mental health crisis two years ago, I had pushed myself to go through school and get my Bachelor of Science in Social Work, followed directly by pursuing my Master of Social Work. During this time, I was struggling with my mental health and using unhealthy coping mechanisms because I was afraid to get help. I learned how to hide my symptoms from others by keeping a mask on, and becoming a workaholic was my way of feeling as though I was succeeding. It was only after a traumatic loss of a relationship that my mental illnesses became all-encompassing, and I experienced an episode of severe suicidal ideation. I was taken to the emergency room because I was not able to function at all, and afterward, I took time away from school and work to focus on my mental and physical health.

Unfortunately, prioritizing my health and what my body needs has not been easy. I often feel guilty for taking time to rest, or not being able to do certain things because my health is in jeopardy. I am incredibly sensitive to criticism and have found myself wounded when others haven’t been able to understand why I am unable to work right now. I have also experienced blatant distaste and outright disrespect from certain people who learn I am on disability primarily because of my mental illnesses.

Now, I find that each day is an upward battle of trying to choose my health and what my body needs first, rather than what others may expect of me. Before receiving help, I didn’t hold any boundaries when it came to choosing my needs first, and as I have learned to set boundaries around my health and wellbeing, I have often been confronted with opposition. In our society, rest is seen as “laziness” and “unproductive,” and I had been raised to value arduous work above anything else. Needless to say, trying to dissect the myth of laziness from rest is something I am still working on every day. For far too long mental illnesses and “invisible illnesses” have been misunderstood by others, and this misunderstanding has caused us to be critical of ourselves and challenge the reality of our needs.

Summer tends to be a time of year when I feel I have to defend my need for rest the most. Summer, in general, is a time of increased activity for many as an influx of activities such as festivals and sports become available, especially this year as things have begun to become more open following the closedown of the pandemic. Hot temperatures — even those that may feel cooler to others — are especially triggering for me. Many of my medications increase my sensitivity to heat and make heatstroke more likely, on top of my current heat sensitivity due to fibromyalgia. It is because of this that I often spend my days of the summer inside, and I tend to require more time sleeping. I am unable to be outside for very long, and exercising in the summer becomes treacherous for me if I don’t stay adequately cooled. While I see other people spend extra time outside with increased activity, I find myself feeling as though I am doing something wrong for needing the extra time to rest or to ensure that my body is comfortable and safe.

As I have begun to confront this criticism of myself, I have come across the teachings of Devon Price, Ph.D., author of “Laziness Does Not Exist.” Their work addresses our workaholic culture, while introducing the groundbreaking idea that laziness does not actually exist. Laziness is a product of our capitalist culture that puts productivity above all else and provides individuals with a near-impossible idea of perfection. While I still struggle with listening to my body’s needs, and not accusing myself of being lazy for needing rest, Price’s work has taught me that it is OK to function differently as someone with chronic illnesses. They have taught me that taking care of myself and my own needs is a priceless level of productivity that is more than valid.

Despite what our world might tell you, your outward, “tracked” productivity that results in economic gain does not equate to your worth. You, right now, without having to do anything are worthy and important. You are precious as you are. Don’t let this society tell you otherwise.

“When people run out of energy or motivation, there’s a good reason for it. Tired, burned out people aren’t struggling with some shameful, evil inner laziness: rather, they’re struggling to survive in an overly demanding, workaholic culture that berates people for having basic needs. We don’t have to keep pushing ourselves to the brink, ignoring our body’s alarm bells and punishing ourselves with self-recrimination. We don’t have to deny ourselves breaks. We don’t have to fear laziness. Laziness does not exist.” – Devon Price, Ph.D

Getty image by baharhun.