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Please Stop Saying 'You're So Brave' to Someone Who's Chronically Sick

People with rare illnesses, raise your hands please. Who else is sick of hearing, “you’re so brave”?

I know it seems churlish to complain, especially since straight-up flattery is so hard to come by these days. It feels like everyone is being ironic about everything, so why wouldn’t I get excited about a real bit of admiration? They’re just being nice, can’t I take a compliment, jeez! Also, if I smiled more, that’d be great, ta.

I’ve written before about the difficulty of disclosure, especially with friends. But I don’t think I covered everything I wanted to cover, specifically about the “noble illness” narrative and how hard it is to actively push back against it.

You know the kind of narrative I’m talking about: someone has a rare illness, but it’s not interfering. They do everything like non-chronically ill people, not drawing attention to their disability. If they suffer, they suffer in silence, crying prettily or not at all. If there is a physical reminder of their illness, it’s camera-appropriate. Their illness does not manifest in an awkward moment — it’s always a dramatic device, not an unpredictable ailment that strikes when it’s convenient.

If that sounds like the plot of a movie, it’s because it is. It’s also why I’m irritated with some of the so-called admiration I receive when disclosing my illness. To me, “you’re so brave,” sounds like a line, not a genuine expression of emotion.

But what if the other person doesn’t know how to respond? How can I begrudge them for falling on the nearest pop culture reference point? Especially if it’s something like Klippel-Trenaunay syndrome, which no one has heard of?

There used to be a time when I couldn’t begrudge them for it, which is why I tend to keep my mouth shut. But these days, with so much information out there, with so many blogs and sites offering a platform for people like me, I feel like the excuse is worn short.

Even if you don’t know how to respond, you can always ask questions:

Do you want to talk about it?

Is there anything I can do to make life easier for you?

Anything you’d like me to do/not do when we’re hanging out?

Heck, even if you are confused and awkward, I would much rather you told me than dressing it up in euphemisms:

I’m really confused about what this is.

I’ve never met anyone with this before, I don’t know how to behave.

I wish I knew more, I feel really awkward right now. Can you please tell me if I’m being ignorant?

At the very least, admire me for my accomplishments, not for living my best life “in spite of illness.”

I’m not a character in a movie, and I deserve genuine interaction.

So if we want to move away from lazy narratives about illness, we have to start building ourselves up for our accomplishments and passions and strong suits – not the things we have no control over, which we cope with out of necessity.

Originally published: July 30, 2019
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