Tuesday, March 21, 2017

I've Been Sick For A While: Why We Need to Change How We Talk About Illness

We think about illness in our society as something that we need to beat. In fact, the slogan of one of the premier cancer charities in the country is celebrate, remember, fight back. I am not criticizing Relay for Life by using its slogan as an example. It's been an important part of my life for many, many years. I am criticizing the way that we think about illness and especially chronic mental illness. We think of illness as a mountain that can be summited and then climbed down, or as an obstacle that can be beaten. When I had the stomach flu last month, I had a few days of feeling really terrible, but by the end of the week, I was almost able to eat normally. I had beat the stomach flu. But this isn't how chronic illness, whether it be physical or mental, works. The word "chronic" essentially means incurable. There are generally ways that chronic conditions can be managed, but they aren't something that we can just beat. You don't beat depression or hypothyroidism. That's not how those illnesses work. They are an everyday struggle, and there are good days and bad days and good hours and bad hours.

I'm going to be honest: when I say I haven't been feeling good for a while. I'm saying that I've been sick. Sick is the way to describe how I've been feeling, but why do I feel so weird using that label? And this leads into the next point I want to make: that mental illness should be treated the same as physical illness. When I say that my lower back is hurting me (stupid hiking pack from 7th grade), people understand that I can't help set up chairs for an event or move around a lot to schmooze at Shabbat dinner. Or if I have a bad cold, people understand if I can't attend five events in a night or lead services. But when I say that I'm anxious or that I've been depressed, I tend to get two reactions most of the time--I'm not blaming the people who act these ways; I think that we should be taught how to deal with this stuff because it isn't necessarily innate. The first is that people don't want anything to do with me. Mental illness, because it is so stigmatized and because it is not often visible to the naked eye scares people. The second, which is related to the first reaction, is that people tiptoe around me like I'm a fragile glass bowl that will shatter if you even poke it.

If you are tempted to have either of these reactions, I want to say this to you: I am still me despite my illness. I am still resilient. I need your kindness, not your pity or your fear. I need you around. I need you to treat me with the same love and care that you would if my back was hurting. I know that it's hard because you fear and you pity because you love me. I get that. But please try. And yes, there are a few who know this innately; who cannot be scared away by anything. But those are the ones who are struggling themselves. And I thank them and all of you, no matter what because just by reading this you are learning and you will be better to the next person struggling with depression or any other mental illness. Thank you again.

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