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4 Tips for Writing About a Character With Chronic Illness

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Chances are, in the course of plotting novels, cranking out essays, and scribbling down poems, chronic illness will eventually pop up in every writer’s work. Drawing from personal experience and frustration of friends, I’ve compiled a list of four common clichés to avoid.

1. Identity Crisis

Whether the people portrayed are real or fictional, it’s vital to remember they’re just that – people! Don’t lose sight of the living, breathing human being underneath the diagnosis.

Often times, anyone with a chronic illness in books, television, or movies are remembered as “the sick one.” If you describe characters only by their illness, it will be one-dimensional and shallow. Not to mention the insult it will wave in the face of anyone living with chronic illness.

No matter how life-altering a disease may be, it’s still only a disease. A person has a disease. They should never be written like they are their disease, because let’s face it, human beings are so much more wonderfully complex than that.

2. Kindness Isn’t Automatically Heroic

The scene opens on two kids struggling through the ups and downs of high school. Character A is a girl who happens to use a wheelchair. Character B is a boy who takes a few minutes out of his day to talk to her. Perhaps Character B is even kind or stands up for her. For some reason, this sort of act is hyped up and glorified. Character A is swooning because a boy treated her with basic human decency. He treated her like any other human being should be treated. Why is this considered romantic? Why is he a hero? The thought alone frustrates me to no end.

Treating disabled and/or chronically ill people with the respect and compassion you would show anyone else isn’t heroic. It’s what any human can and should do. Treating a human being as some sort of service project and patting yourself on the back is sickening. You will not be nominated for sainthood for being a decent person. That’s the truth – like it or not.

When writing in relationships between healthy and chronically ill people, don’t glorify basic acts of human decency. When it comes down to it, we’re all people, and we all deserve to be treated as equals, no matter what health condition we may or may not have.

3. Embrace the Mini-Culture

The chronic illness community spans from the internet to support groups in cities across the globe. The use of hashtags on social media or a simple internet search will yield more information then you could possibly ever need. A lot of us are very open about our illnesses and want to spread awareness. I would bet a lot of would-be strangers would be willing to help you learn more about the illness you’re researching if you just ask.

We have what I like to call a “mini-culture.” I don’t think it’s prevalent to be called a sub-culture, but we’re everywhere if you know where to look. One analogy you’re going to want to get familiar with is the “Spoon Theory,” as a lot of people with a chronic illness refer to themselves as “Spoonies.”

A few other things you should know about the mini-culture:

Self-advocacy is huge. A lot of us will read medical journals and do research to find a diagnosis or the best treatment options.

We really have tried everything there is to try. We know you mean well, but please don’t give advice about our health unless we ask for it. Just believe us and support us. Sit with us through the pain. Be our friend. That’s all.

Our tolerance for pain is extremely high. We fake wellness 24/7, smile through agony, and keep going. If we actually admit that we feel awful, we are feeling truly awful. There is no exaggeration. If anything, we down-play our symptoms to avoid drawing attention.

Many of us have a deep-set frustration towards doctors that is hard for healthy people to understand. After all, most people go to the doctor, get well, and go home. That’s hardly ever the case for us. Think of “chronic” like the word permanent. Chronic illnesses are here to stay, and often, doctors are at a loss for words on how to treat them. That’s, of course, if the doctors even believe us. We are often labeled “attention-seeking” or “a head-case” when we’re actually struggling with life-threatening diseases. Beginning to understand the frustration now?

4. If You Only Avoid One Cliché…

This is one of the absolute worst things you could write. Are you ready? Drum roll, please.

A character who feigns illness to get out of responsibility or to gain attention.

I’ve seen more of those than I have genuinely sick characters! For a person with a chronic illness, reading about a faker is like pouring salt on an open wound.

There isn’t a single person with a chronic illness that hasn’t been doubted, accused of faking, or downright bullied because they “don’t look sick.” You never know what’s going on in someone’s body. The human body is wonderfully complex, and there are parts that still confuse modern medicine. A lot can go on underneath the skin. You can’t see germs with the naked eye, and they exist. You can’t see some illnesses, and they’re just as real.

I’m sure you’ve heard, “I fake having a headache to get out of school.”

My stomach knots up whenever I hear words like these. It is people like that who perpetuate the stereotypes and misnomers that haunt people living with chronic illness.

We’re faking wellness to go to work or school, not sickness! We’re doing our best to mask symptoms and pain so we’re not accused of faking or ostracized by friends or co-workers. It is impossible to describe how agonizing it is to be accused of faking an illness that destroyed your life. I’m begging you! Don’t write another character feigning illness. If you only take away one thing, that would be the one.

Follow this journey on Katrina Quarry.

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Getty image by kvkirillov

Originally published: February 6, 2018
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