Please Don't Say, 'There's Always Something Wrong With You...' to a Person With Chronic Illness
Chronic illness is often used as such a “catch all” phrase these days. It covers a myriad of illnesses, diseases and disabilities. But then, couldn’t all of those words be used in the same vein? Don’t all chronic illnesses “disable” us in one way or another? Make us feel “diseased?”
Chronic, as it relates to illness, is defined as “persisting for a long time or constantly recurring.” Its meaning is clearly definable but the number and variety of conditions it covers is certainly not finite.
Health, and especially frequently poor health, naturally hits highs and lows. Sometimes those lows last for what can seem like the longest time and you struggle to see an end to them. This can be hard enough to deal with on your own, but factor in having to communicate your health issues to the outside world and you’re faced with a whole new set of complications to deal with.
Explaining the intricacies of a condition to an outsider can often be intimidating and challenging to say the least; particularly if you are new to it yourself and still learning. When we do discuss our condition with others and don’t get the response or reaction we perhaps expect, it can be quite the setback. Often, living with a chronic illness can feel humiliating. It can be embarrassing, distressing and complex. We may not want to talk about our condition, which is wholly our right, of course, yet sometimes our symptoms make that privilege all but impossible. If it is a visible condition it allows for comment, and that’s something we sadly can’t control.
So, pulling on at that thread of uninvited comment, a certain infuriating phrase that sticks in my head, and has been said to me upwards of 168798782784240 times (at last count anyway), is:
“There always seems to be something wrong with you…”
This is generally said off the cuff (and perhaps a feeble attempt at humor?) with a snide undertone. It’s often spoken with a question mark at the end of it; as though we are somehow expected to answer to it. It’s not really deserving of a question mark in my humble opinion, as it’s more of a statement of fact. I’m not sure what the relevance of such a question is either, other than to remind us that we are ill, all the time. Sadly, something we are all too aware of already.
The only answer that could be given to such a bizarre poser (and I find it most effective bellowed through a megaphone) is “Yes, there is always something wrong with me. It’s incurable!” But that response only served to get me thrown out of the library and banned from the local church the last five times I used it.
It is phrases such as these that are upsetting to someone with a disability and/or illness for many, many reasons. Let me count the ways… (Seven. There are seven ways.)
1. It implies we are being untruthful about our health problems. If you have to query in a suspicious tone that expects us to answer for an incurable condition, then you nail your “I don’t believe you” colors firmly to the mast. This, funnily enough, doesn’t make for a comfortable conversation to follow.
2. It can make us feel like a nuisance. No person who even remotely cares for another person should make them feel this way. Implying we are using our condition for attention or exploiting it for our own gain is just mean at the root of it.
3. It singles us out. We don’t want to be sick, and we certainly don’t want to be treated any differently than a “normal” person. Suggesting we are seeking some end goal other than the best possible health makes us retreat into our shells, and that can be increasingly risky for those of us with already wavering mental health.
4. It makes us feel we are appearing like a hypochondriac. Anyone with a chronic illness dislikes hypochondriacs intensely. We have to eat, sleep and think about illness every day; we don’t need to hear you give us chapter and verse on that one time in 1983 when you had the measles. Just because you perhaps aren’t used to hearing people talk honestly about an incurable condition doesn’t make it any less true when we do.
5. It silences us from talking about our illness. This is not good. We need to talk about our conditions because it allows us to educate, share, unload and learn. The more we remain silent on what we are experiencing, the more withdrawn we become and the more ashamed we feel.
6. It makes us feel embarrassed and ashamed. As above: not good. Something we should never allow ourselves to feel. Chronic conditions can get such bad press; we need to be at the forefront of changing that, not being beaten down by uninformed opinions.
7. It reminds us there is always something wrong with us. Yes, we know.
On the flip side of this ghastly and mildly insensitive coin, however, when met with thoughtlessness of this degree, I often try to mentally counter these statements with any positives I can find in them. Easier said than done, but if you take a mental (and maybe physical) step back and look hard enough, you are bound to find something. Let’s throw the negativity over the balcony, crushing it painfully below, causing irrevocable damage and try that now.
1. Yes, there is always something wrong with me, yet I’m still here, being alive alongside you.
2. No, nope, sorry, I think that’s all I can come up with. Maybe I’m just not a very forgiving person.
The issue with phrases like the aforementioned “There always seems to be something wrong with you…” is that, whether intended that way or not, they are simply unkind and just so unnecessary. As I’m not (at time of writing) practiced in mind control, I can’t stop people thinking things like that of course, but I can certainly voice my discomfort when they allow the words to leave their lips. Meaning, if you’re going to openly say something along those lines to someone with a chronic illness, then you should really be prepared for the potentially messy fallout. What may seem an entirely innocent comment on our condition to you may come across as a not-so-subtle jibe directed at us for reasons we’ll have to retreat into paranoia to discover.
You see, it’s not “just a joke” when you make another human being feel essentially lesser. Kindness is so easy. It’s often found simply in inaction. It’s effortless! You can be kind by just not saying that thing you know would be taken badly should the person it’s aimed at hear you. Just don’t say it! It’s that simple! You can be kind by taking a moment, just one precious moment, to consider the outcome of your words. If you have an inkling that what you are about to say to another human being may be mean or insulting, then just don’t say it. No, you won’t receive an award for it, but you also won’t receive a black eye, some swings and roundabouts.
Think bad thoughts, by all means, we all do that. It’s one of the silent joys in life. You can think we are lazy (for example), without actually accusing us of being so.
Maybe just consider this: Are you the type of person who deliberately sets out to upset and offend another human being whose only crime is not acting or looking the way you want or expect them to? If you answered yes to that, then I hope you find what’s missing in your life someday.
(See how easy it is to be kind?)
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Thinkstock photo via Anna1000Arts.