Janet (j4) wrote,
Janet
j4

There's nothing wrong with you, the simple life gets complicated

I feel incredibly irritable at the moment.

There, that's all the warning you get. After that, it's your own fault if you step on anything that blows up in your face. And any minute now somebody will say "Are you on the rag?" and I'll tear their head off with both hands; yes, it's "that time of the month", so the raging hormones are probably part of the problem, but that's not the whole story.

I don't like being ill. It's unfortunate, then, that I seem relatively prone to minor illness -- coughs, colds, headaches, slightly upset stomach, occasional patches of eczema, and so on. All very mild, but extremely irritating when they stop me doing things that I want to do, or even just slow me down a bit -- and very, very boring when I'm not allowed to forget them. Coughing and blowing my nose is NOT INTERESTING.

Now, normally I try (believe it or not!) to avoid talking to other people about things which aren't interesting. But with illness, it's not always that simple. It seems more honest to tell somebody "I don't want to do X because my stomach's feeling a bit uneasy" than just to say "I'm not interested"; more reasonable to say "I have a headache, and it hurts when I move my head, so I'm reluctant to move too much" than to lie and say "I just don't want to have sex with you, thanks". Unfortunately, in this context, honesty is unutterably dull.

But the problem is not just this brief bit of boringness (which is often necessary for a purely factual communication). It's the fact that it's so often assumed that this is more than a transfer of information; that it's a statement of interest. In other words, that I want to talk about my minor illnesses: or, in other other words, that I am a boring person. I don't want to talk about coughs and colds, or stomach aches and headaches. There's only so much you can say about different brands of aspirin, or the benefits of softer tissues, or the healing powers of peppermint and ginger tea, and none of it is exactly riveting conversational material. I want to just be able to say "there has been a minor system error, but normal service will resume shortly", and then just carry on as normally as possible.

I don't like being incapable of doing the things I want to do, and I don't like being treated as an invalid -- even down to being teasingly or affectionately coddled when I have minor illnesses. It makes me angry. I think what it boils down to is that I've put an enormous amount of effort into taking control of my own life in the ways that matter to me; I don't like to have that effort overridden by something as irrelevant as a cold virus or a stomach bug, and I don't like to have that effort devalued by other people. I know people often think they're doing me a favour when they say things like "You just rest, don't tire yourself out," but to me that's barely even one step away from "Don't you trouble your pretty little head about it."

I think there are also a lot of post-depression hangups involved here -- though the fact that I said "post-depression" without thinking about it reassures me. There was a stage of my life when it was incredibly helpful to have the label of "depression", to be able to say "I am ill" rather than "I am a hopeless failure". There was a stage when it helped for people to say "You don't have to be able to cope with this right now," because at the time I honestly couldn't. But that stage passed, and then there came a stage where "You don't have to cope" was just a licence to avoid trying to cope -- a welcome licence, in the same way that a bottle of gin can afford welcome oblivion; and, in my experience, about as unhealthy. If enough people wrap you in cotton wool then admittedly you're unlikely to break, but you're quite likely to suffocate. The analogy I always used to use was that of having a broken leg, but really I think it's more like a bad sprain; if you've sprained a muscle it's important to be careful how you use it, but if you don't use it at all it'll never get back to a point where you can use it normally. Little steps; slow progress.

(Mind you, when I did sprain my ankle I went clubbing a week later, having discovered that I could pogo on one foot and just use my bad foot for balance. Sheer pig-headed adolescent stupidity can shatter even the best analogies.)

Of course, the real reason it makes me angry when people offer me the chance to skive off with a sick-note (real or metaphorical) is that it frightens me. To go back to the gin analogy, I'm scared that if I accept the offer of just one G&T before dinner, the next thing I know I'll have drained the bottle and will be clawing the childproof top off the bottle of meths under the sink.

When I worked at ProQuest I took oceans of "sick leave" just because I felt unable to cope with going into the office; once I'd done that once, it was easier to do it another time, and another ... eventually I got to the point where I really didn't know what "counted" as being too ill to go to work, because I always felt too ill to go to work. I also got to the point where I lost a potential job because of the amount of sick leave I'd taken. After that, I realised that I couldn't afford to ever be ill again; I resolved to go into work no matter what, unless I actually had an obvious physical injury that prevented me from going in: perhaps having been decapitated, or at the very least lost a limb. And I knew I'd feel a bit guilty taking the time off just for losing a leg.

This year I have had half a day's sick leave, and that was when a bag of pumpkin seeds somehow made me violently sick. Part of me thinks "I shouldn't have gone home! I will never get another job now," but I know that's nonsense. On the other hand, it does still feel like the thin end of the wedge, and I do still feel as though I have to fight my mind and body tooth and nail to prevent myself sinking into the quicksand of "not coping". And I do fight it, all the time. But battle hardens the heart. Accordingly, while I have sympathy for people who are genuinely ill, I don't have much sympathy for people wallowing in their illness. I worry that this makes me heartless; but on the whole I think that dwelling on the illness isn't useful to anybody. (On the other hand, I don't have much sympathy for people who refuse to take the necessary time to rest and recuperate when they really are ill, either; I'm hypocritical and inconsistent. So sue me.) There's a danger that people with long-term illnesses can become defined by their illness: I do not want to be "a depressive"; essentially, I do not want to be "a victim". And I want to give other people the same dignity; there's no need for anybody to be defined solely by one aspect of their situation. (I suppose I should -- and would, if they insisted -- accept that they have the right to be defined that way if they want to, but I'd regard it as a pathological case; do many people really want to be defined by a debilitating illness?) I am a person, to whom things sometimes happen; as far as possible I want to deal with those things and move on.

I mean, if somebody had a cold I wouldn't say "poor snugglekins, let's wrap oo up in big fwuffy bwankets, oo mustn't do anything oo don't want to for a year or two". I'd be more likely to say "Get plenty of fluids and VitC, eat sensibly, get some sleep, and you'll be fine in a couple of days." Similarly, if somebody's depressed, I'm not going to say "You have an inalienable right to refuse all responsibilities for the rest of your life because you're ill and that's the most important thing in the world." I don't think that's helpful: to me it seems dangerously disempowering. Let's face it, most people would prefer not to be ill; why encourage them to find their identity in the illness, at the expense of all the good and interesting things in their life? I think there's an important distinction between acknowledging the illness and accepting it; it's the distinction between allowing someone you don't particularly like to stay in your spare room (and making reasonable adjustments to accommodate them even though you dislike them), and rearranging your furniture so that they can have the master bedroom ... or even signing over the deeds of the house to them.

The usual response to this, of course, is "How dare you imply that people can get over depression just by trying!" -- because the idea that it's possible to get better is another potential crack into which self-accusations of failure can creep: "if it were possible to get better, then I should have done it; but I haven't, so either I'm a failure or it's impossible." Now, I'm not a doctor, but I don't believe those are the only two choices. This is where the sprain analogy comes in handy again: it's possible to act in such a way as to help a sprain heal faster and more fully (for example, the nurse gave me tedious stretching exercises which you're supposed to do every morning... and would probably have strongly advised me against going clubbing if she'd known I was planning anything so dumb) but nobody would accuse you of "failure" just because it takes a non-zero amount of time for a muscle to heal. And personally, I'd prefer to imply that people can do good (or at least do no harm) by trying to take control of their lives, than to imply that there's no hope for them and they might as well give up. (Of course, those aren't the only two choices either.)

Time to stop now before I attract any more flames than I already will.

Disclaimer: The above represents a small cross-section of a subset of my own opinions and beliefs and is not intended to be a guide to living, a statement of any sort of 'one true way', a judgement call on other people's opinions or beliefs, or a personal attack on any specific situation, individual or individuals (living or dead). It is not even intended to be a definitive and conclusive account of what I think or believe, as it is necessarily incomplete and, besides, I have been known to change my mind. It may, however, contain traces of nuts.
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