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Being Healthy Is a Privilege

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I consider myself privileged. While my childhood was a bit tumultuous, I now live in a big (albeit older) house on a quiet street in Toronto’s affluent West End with my husband and two kids. I’m a white, cisgender, middle class woman with a decent education and income who has been afforded opportunities that many (especially women) in the world have not. I have access to affordable healthcare, clean drinking water and all the organic, farm-fresh chickens and vegetables I can eat. I can order a gluten-free, vegan pizza at 2:00 in the morning and have it delivered to my front door. And I can afford to tip the delivery person. I’m privileged.

There’s been a lot of discussion around the subject of privilege lately, which I think is really, really good. Racism, income inequality and the wage gap are becoming harder and harder to ignore. But something I’ve noticed is that very few people are willing or able to acknowledge their own (our own – because I surely do it too) privilege. I have conversations with people and walk away just gobsmacked at the sense of entitlement.

And why not? If you grew up in a decent home, went to a good school, have never really struggled for money or a job and your kids (if you have them) are cherubic little angels who rarely step out of line, I can see how you would expect life to just keep going on like that – like one long sunny day. It’s totally reasonable.

Without getting into detail, I think I can fairly and accurately state that I’ve faced some hardships in my life – some admittedly self-made, others completely out of my control. But objectively, I’d still consider myself privileged (for so many reasons I don’t have the time to get into here). So recently, just for fun, I filled out one of those “How Privileged Are You?” quizzes online, fully expecting to be in the top 90 percent.

But one of the questions made me pause.

Do have a chronic illness or suffer from chronic pain?   


I answered it honestly and lost a lot of points. Like a lot of points. I was no longer in the 90th percentile, that’s for sure.


It got me thinking about how many people just take their health for granted, not realizing how many of us are walking around (OK, maybe crawling around) feeling like a sack of rotten potatoes – in pain, struggling to find the energy for day-to-day tasks and in constant fear of long car rides with no bathroom breaks.

And then I got mad. All those people living their lives and not even thinking about their health?!  That was completely foreign to me.  Not a single decision is made in my day without consideration of how it will affect or be affected by my craptastic health.

But why would they? Other than the flu or a cold a few times a year and maybe one scary bout of appendicitis as a kid, they have no frame of reference for an illness that never goes away, no matter how much a person rests or how much medication she takes.

And then I realized – those people, they’re privileged!

It’s not that everyone is entitled to good health, it’s that healthy people are lucky. Lucky! People who don’t have 10 doctor appointments a month, who haven’t had multiple surgeries, who don’t suffer in pain most days are privileged. The frustrating thing is they have no idea how lucky they are.

So…if you’re wondering if you might be one of those people (hint: if you’re wondering and/or if this is legitimately the first time you’ve thought about your health this week – you probably are), here are some things to think about:

If you go to bed every night relatively confident that you’ll wake up in the morning feeling at least halfway decent; if it doesn’t even cross your mind to make a contingency plan or to worry that you might be too sick to go to work or care for your kids or run errands, then you might be privileged.  

If you don’t have to face letting down your friends and family on a consistent basis because you’re suddenly too sick or in too much pain to do that thing you said you’d do with/for them, you might be privileged.

If you don’t live in constant fear of getting sick while driving on the highway and ginormous box stores with bathrooms in the far back corner don’t terrify you to your core, you might be privileged.

If every plane or concert ticket you buy doesn’t absolutely have to be on the aisle, you might be privileged. 

If you don’t spend at least one day a week confined to bed, recovering from regular life (i.e. the things most people do without even thinking), you might be privileged.

If you don’t depend on medication to get you through the day; if you’ve never had to inject yourself and suffer the side effects of nasty chemicals in your body (sometimes worse than the disease you’re trying to treat), you might be privileged. 

medications on bedside table

If the inside of your purse doesn’t look like a small pharmacy (including a tube of lidocaine, extra toilet paper and a change of clothes), you might be privileged.  

If you don’t have to budget energy the way most people budget money, you might be privileged.  

If you can put something on your calendar and know that, barring some catastrophic event, you will be able to keep that commitment, you might be privileged. 

If you don’t often have to give up on something you really, really wanted to do, (think vacation, dinner and a movie with friends, going for a walk in the sunshine) because you’re too sick to move, you might be privileged.  

If you’ve never had to go on sick leave to have surgery, start a new medication or just to recover, you might be privileged.   

If you don’t regularly sit through a meeting, a kid’s recital or church on Sunday while dealing with the kind of pain that would send a “normal” person running for the Percocet and a hot water bottle, you might be privileged.  

If you don’t spend at least a couple or hours a week curled up in the fetal position on the bathroom floor, you might be privileged.  

And here’s the thing – if you are privileged in this way, that’s OK. That’s good! I don’t (most days) begrudge you that. When I was healthy (*struggles to remember a time*), I took it for granted too. I didn’t know how lucky I was.

So here’s what you can do:

Know how lucky you are.

And maybe, let your chronically ill family member or friend know that you know…

Next time he or she has to back out of something at the last minute, be kind, be understanding, be the person who brings him a bowl of soup. Do not be the person who compares chronic illness to that time you had the flu or that UTI you just couldn’t shake. No matter how much you think it is, it’s not the same thing. Do not judge something you do not understand. Do not be the person who rolls eyes, sighs, and complains. Trust me, we would give just about anything to have the privilege of health most people take for granted.

Except pizza. I’m never giving up pizza.

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Originally published: July 10, 2017
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