When sickness becomes armour

Published on The Mighty under the title “We Cannot Let Sickness Become an Excuse for Problematic Behaviour”, October 2017.


It’s a weird thing to have to go back to a half-finished piece and change the beginning because of recent events. But, as I have through a lot of my own illness, I have seen a great deal of self-indulgence and pretension from both healthy people and, perhaps more worryingly, other sick people. While this post deals with how easy it is to forget about kindness when you’re ill, recent events have caused me to admit that it can also be easy — even for me — to forget that sick people are still people.

Not in the sense that most sick people experience from, say, doctors, in which we are reduced to numbers on a screen. Rather, as a sick person interacting with other sufferers, it is possible to be too compassionate and forgive worrying or problematic behaviours. In other words, sometimes you can forget to call people on their bullshit. While the armour of sickness can be our own construction, I have certainly been guilty, especially recently, of inadvertently helping others build up those barricades. It is tremendously sad to see how sick people can still treat each other badly, become too wrapped up in their own feelings, forget about humanity. As a result, what I had already written here had become even more prescient, even before I came back to finish the piece.

— G.


It is a sad truth that being sick, whether it be an acute or a chronic condition, does not instantly canonize someone into sainthood. Often, the opposite is true and the bitterness and shock of illness, and the treatment we receive due to illness, can sour a person’s outlook and turn us into people we don’t want to be, people we never thought we could be. In reality, sickness isn’t just a battle for our health but also a long struggle to retain our humanity. Negative emotion can be a dominating aspect of chronic illness and often that negativity can be focused in the wrong places. While we may feel rightfully hard done by, we can inadvertently let those moments of despair and hate — those moments where we really think how unfair it all us — spill onto our relationships.

Which begs the question: Why is it so easy to fall to hate and bitterness while sick? Do we, despite our symptoms, need to hold ourselves to a higher standard? While our treatment by others and the ingrained ableism of the systems that are supposed to protect disabled and sick people might inform a certain guarded nature, do we not have just as much responsibility to others as they do to us?

It can be easy, when your mind is resting so heavy on the prospect of lifelong illness, to forget about basic kindness. By nature, sick people often have to be single-minded. Passions, relationships, prospects, they can all fall behind that one great priority we hoped to never have: our health. So, when it comes to examining what might be affecting our health in a negative way — or a perceived negative way — we can often lose sight of the specifics in favor of the general and make blanket decisions without considering the individual effect of our actions. It is also easy to hide behind our symptoms and the effect they’ve had on our lives, and in doing so, create a kind of wall of sickness that separates our behavior from our person. As a result, we allow ourselves an extra level of privilege and entitlement, and an avenue out of responsibility — i.e. it wasn’t me, it was my illness.

This is not only wrong, it is hurtful. We are victims enough of misfortune and, especially medical, mistreatment without amplifying that by acting like we are victims also of a kind of symptom-driven animism. Our illnesses do not hold Voodoo dolls in our likenesses that allow them to influence our actions, rather we are responsible for how much we let our sickness overtake our person. We might lose physical and cognitive ability, but that does not mean we can volunteer to lose our humanity too.

Human interaction is hard enough with its existing pitfalls and obstacles. As such, it can be tempting to give up on it completely. We examine the stress of interaction and how that influences our symptoms and we can easily fall into a trap of not wanting them anymore. I imagine it’s much the same feeling that healthy people get when speaking to their sick friends — and why so many abandon their sick friends — that extra dynamic is too different and too hard to understand straight away. I, myself, have found myself in the past two years of illness with at least two intervals in which I did not speak to anyone — or I drastically reduced my interactions — for long periods. Not because I didn’t want to. No, rather a lack of energy and a need to do other things with what little energy I possessed meant that chasing conversation became a little too sapping. In these periods I did my best to focus my energies on the important and regular people, but I still recognized at that time that I was becoming less social even to them, and I recognize now how wrong that was of me.

As people with illness, we are not exempt from sacrifice. Depending on your outlook, this might be an unfortunate truth. It’s an important part of relationships that we have to give time we might normally want to ourselves or for ourselves to others, and this doesn’t change just because one falls ill. If we are to demand fairer treatment, both on a large scale and from those around us, we too must maintain a certain standard of care and attention towards our loved ones. Simply stating we care while falling out of their lives — somewhat on purpose — is not enough; it can’t be enough. It’s important to show how you feel, rather than just telling. This might require an allotment of energy we no longer have boundless amounts of, but if we are to be worth people’s time then they should be worth our energy.

As people with terrible and life-altering illnesses, we often focus too much on our own feelings. We may look at the hurt that has been done to us and how much we struggle, and we may give ourselves far too much license to hurt others — whether they’re healthy or sick — without shouldering the responsibility for that. It can be much too easy for us to make our symptoms into a kind of shield from culpability and pretend we are allowed to do whatever we want in the pursuit of improvement and recovery.

With so many external influences trying to make us hateful and bitter people, I believe we have a responsibility to rise above the temptation to let our illness rule our lives and emotions. We have a responsibility to the people we love to not become the burden that so many claim we are. We have a responsibility to maintain a level of kindness that we would expect from others. We have a responsibility to not excuse our own problematic behaviours by pinning them on our illness rather than owning up to them. We have a responsibility, and we cannot — should not — ignore that.