Being Sick Is Wrong

See the short introduction to these essays and the rest of my sociomedical essays here. Especially the essay The Nature of Illness continues with the same theme.

It is never good to be a patient. The word, after all, comes from Latin, meaning the one who suffers. It is a clinical word, a passive one, with none of the active, perky, commercial zing of "customer" or "client". The latter are subjects, the patient is an object. The implications of this difference is clear. The customer is always right. The patient is always wrong.

The society has no place for illness. It is extremely inconsiderate to fall ill. If you happen to get sick, hide it as well as you can. Do not talk about it, unless you do it in a light manner, making fun of the whole thing. Appear strong and brave, demand you are treated like any other person. Whatever you do, don not complain. That is a sign of attention seeking. You are probably not really sick, just a hypochondriac.

Essentially you have three possible roles to choose from. You can be the pathetic whiner, the one who never mentions his illness or the inspiring, heroic person cracking jokes on his deathbed. People love calling sick and disabled people "bold", "brave" and "inspiring". If you do anything while you have cancer, you are an inspiration.

A severely depressed person who manages to crawl out of bed on a particularly bad day, they are not inspiring, just losers. The severity of illness is primarily gauged on how likely it is to kill you (suicide doesn't count). Hence cancer is bad, Alzheimer's is bad, something that causes chronic pain 24/7 is not so bad. It just makes you a better person, right?

Illnesses are not created equal. The label you are slapped with determines how other people view you. If you have cancer, you are bound to get everyone's sympathy, whether you like it or not. If you have a mental illness, you had better not even mention it. If you are sick with something obscure, you had better not look well, as your looks determine how sick you will be seen. Some illnesses are perceived as women's illnesses (and many of them are; e.g. most autoimmune diseases attack women disproportionately) and they get a much poorer rap, because medicine - and the society - is still extremely sexist.

If people do not believe you're really sick, they will assume you're just lazy. Often they will not hesitate to tell you what they think. When you are told you are lazy, you actually start feeling lazy, even if you are bedridden and unable to do anything. Being told you are lazy is even worse than being told you are stupid.

In the past sick people were openly discriminated against. Illness was strongly associated with religious ideas. Sick people were thought to be possessed or hysterical, some were burnt as witches. The mentally ill were killed or locked up. People with certain hereditary illnesses, or illnesses believed to be hereditary such as epilepsy, were denied the right to marriage or even sterilized. It is easy to think things are now better and such discrimination and abuse does not exist, but sadly it is far from reality.

There is one important reason why people do not want to be reminded of illness or why it is not a good topic for conversation. A serious illness is like a slow death and dealing with our mortality is difficult. We cannot fathom our own death and we do not want to even think about our loved ones dying. The existence of illness proves we are all mortal and vulnerable. No matter who you are and how much power you have you can still get ill. Even the healthiest lifestyle does not make you immune to sickness.

We want to believe illness is something that only happens to other people. It is always the other people who suffer and die. We distance ourselves from sickness and other weaknesses, trying to believe we are immune to them. If it has to exist, we must make it something that can be conquered. It must have something to do with the other person's lifestyle, or bad karma at least.

Illness feels like an abstract concept and we do not have adequate coping strategies for those. It is not taught in school. Those lucky enough to get health education are not told how to deal with a chronic condition, or that they can get ill and their friends and family can get ill, too. We have to come up with our own coping mechanisms, which include disbelief, ignorance, denial and others. Of course, that is hardly of much comfort to a sick person who gets told he is "lazy", "hypochondriac" or "attention seeking".

People with almost any type chronic illness are victimized, but those who have a mental illness are even worse off. No one trusts their opinions, because they are crazy, after all. Anything they can say can be shrugged off as delusions or other products of the imagination. If they think they are not treated properly, why bother to listen to them, they do not know what's the best for them anyway. A common approach is just to up the dosage of drugs. At least then the patient cannot claim the medication isn't doing anything.

And should a mental patients need treatment for a physical illness, they're screwed. If someone sees a psychiatric diagnosis in their papers all of their complaints can be labeled as psychosomatic, hypochondriasis, Munchausen syndrome, what have you. The worst thing that can happen to you is getting physically ill in a mental institution. The staff might just be able to notice if you've got the flu, but do not expect to get any treatment for example a migraine.

Chronic illness is strongly associated with femininity and being a female. Most of the time people think of someone who is ill, they will picture a woman, with the exception of AIDS patients, but not much else. It's hard to picture a man with a chronic illness. Most chronic illnesses, especially autoimmune diseases are more common in women, but most occur often in men, as well. Traditionally medicine in the Western world has viewed women as the faulty version of men, not just weaker, but like flawed men.

Men have an easier time being taken seriously with their symptoms and complaints, but on the other hand men face even stronger expectations to be in control of their life, to be strong, to be the breadwinner. Then again, women often face the main responsibility of parenthood and chronically ill women often carry a massive burden of feeling they are bad parent. There is no worse guilt than the idea of being a bad mother.

Children fare even worse than adults. Their complaints are dismissed and belittled. Children respect doctors, teachers and parents as their authorities and if they are told there is nothing wrong with them, they eventually start believing it, even if it is obvious that something is wrong. Younger children are accused of school phobia while teens face the accusations of depression, anxiety, eating disorders or even just puberty. To make matters worse, chronic illnesses often manifest different symptoms in children than in adults, which makes diagnosis more difficult.

Just as adults get accused of hypochondria, so are children. They are punished for their "negative attitude" and they feel guilt for not being able to achieve what other kids do. Parents can end up in serious trouble if someone starts believing they suffer from Munchausen by Proxy. Parents suffering from this condition use their children as a tool to get medical attention, often causing physical harm to them. This horrible syndrome does exist and if let to continue, it can lead to death of the child, but it is extremely rare, much more rare than chronic illness. Some suspected parents have had their children taken away from them for doing nothing but standing up for their sick children.

People are interested in health, not in illness. Everyone is convinced they will maintain their health forever, or shrug it off and make fun out of their own poor lifestyle choices. Health is something you can brag about, how you have not taken a day off work in a decade and how you never pop a pill no matter what aches or ailments you are suffering from. These people despise medicine and will only see a doctor to hear that they are dying soon. This proves the old belief that once you start seeing doctors, you will never see a healthy day again.