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There's nothing wrong with you, the simple life gets complicated - shadows of echoes of memories of songs
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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venta From: venta Date: December 7th, 2004 05:27 am (UTC) (Link)
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.

Unfortunately, most of us have had bred into us in various ways that, if someone tells you they don't want to come out and play because they are ill, it is callous to say "Oh, right, I'm off then." Politeness demands that we express sympathy, offer help, etc even if we do not give a flying fairy.

Like you, I'd really rather that someone accepted the information that I don't feel well, and then either went away or talked about something interesting instead. No one does. But equally, when being told someone else is ill, neither do I, for free of seeming rude/disinterested.

Perhaps someone should invent a generic formula which expesses "I have taken on board that you are ill. I am sorry to hear it, and will adjust any plans accordingly. If I can be of any practical assistance tell me. Let me know when this no longer needs to apply." in about three words, thus clearing the way for proper conversation to ensue again.
j4 From: j4 Date: December 7th, 2004 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I know what you mean. I can't get it down to three words, but:

"Sorry to hear that. Is there anything I can do? Or shall we just postpone until you're feeling better?"

That'd work for me, anyway. But to be honest if I say "I've got a cold" I expect an answer along the lines of "It's December. You live in the UK. DEAL." Although obviously I'd be a bit pissed off by this answer in June. :-)
venta From: venta Date: December 7th, 2004 05:42 am (UTC) (Link)
Three words:

Renegade. Catastrophe. Badger.

Admittedly, not terribly comprehensible. But if you ever tell me you're ill, I shall say them :)
addedentry From: addedentry Date: December 7th, 2004 06:59 am (UTC) (Link)
To a first approximation, I never get ill. So it is interesting to me to learn that some people habitually carry ibuprofen, or need to rest their wrists five minutes in an hour, for instance. In fact, I need to be reminded that other people can feel bad without displaying either a rash or a sudden reduction in the number of limbs. This is especially true with chronic sickness.

I'm attuned to the greyscale beauty of boredom and would never dismiss the weather or transport difficulties as conversational gambits. They're safe topics for comfortable, consensual complaint, a way of discovering common ground for more interesting topics. (If you can get there without small talk then you're lucky in your friends and colleagues.) Asking about coughs, colds and headaches is equally neutral - it doesn't have to be an offer to indulge weakness any more than sympathising with someone caught in a shower.

But equally, when being told someone else is ill, neither do I, for free of seeming rude/disinterested.

You did manage this when I mentioned splitting up with a girlfriend you'd never met: a polite expression of impersonal regret and an admission that you had no advice whatsoever. Much the best and most honest response and appreciated as such.

Perhaps someone should invent a generic formula ... in about three words

'That sucks. Pint?'
emperor From: emperor Date: December 7th, 2004 05:40 am (UTC) (Link)
I agree with you to a point, but presenteeism at work isn't good for you[1], good for your cow-orkers, or good for your employer; clearly there's a line to be drawn in the sand somewhere as to what counts as "ill enough you should stay home", but I don't know where :s

I have the easy option of working from home when I feel crap enough I can't face going into work, but can still drive a keyboard.

[1]A general "you", not aimed at you, j4
j4 From: j4 Date: December 7th, 2004 05:45 am (UTC) (Link)
presenteeism at work isn't good for you

Yeah, I know. Which is why I added this bit:
"(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.)"
and admitted that my instinctive reaction of "I shouldn't have gone home! I will never get another job now" was objectively and logically nonsense, even though it was how I felt sometimes.

On the other hand, even if it's better for all concerned if you just take a day off to recover when you've got a bad cold, not all employers see it that way. My employers at ProQuest were fine about me calling in sick -- probably more so than they should have been, in retrospect -- but the HR woman at ACRE (the place I applied to who turned me down because of the sick leave I'd had), when I explained that I'd suffered from depression in the past, said something like "Well, everybody feels a bit under the weather sometimes, but they don't all take sick leave for it."
emperor From: emperor Date: December 7th, 2004 05:46 am (UTC) (Link)
The HR woman at ACRE is clearly a bitch :(

And er, yeah, I agree. Generally I've been lucky with my "employers", though.
From: rmc28 Date: December 7th, 2004 07:37 am (UTC) (Link)
I've learned the 'necessary rest and recuperation' the hard way, and I'm cross with myself for being stupid about it in the past.

I don't like being incapable of doing the things I want to do, and I don't like being treated as an invalid sums up my attitude fairly well I think :)

And grr, arrgh about our workplace and their instinctive recoil of horror from the idea of mepeople working from home occasionally. Because obviously when I'm in the office I never waste any time in a way that I would if I were at home and *gasp* unsupervised.
(Deleted comment)
j4 From: j4 Date: December 7th, 2004 09:47 am (UTC) (Link)
UK ones offer to coddle and comfort you

Can't say I've noticed this -- all the ads I've seen have shown people hastily swallowing cough remedies and then going into high-powered meetings etc. And the decongestants and stuff keep you going regardless of whether stopping the symptoms actually keeps the virus in your body for longer...
From: ewtikins Date: December 7th, 2004 06:14 am (UTC) (Link)
I think a lot of this stuff is about balance and finding the right level within a spectrum, and a lot of people tend to see it in black-and-white, which causes problems.

A lot of the things you mentioned about a label of, say, depressive illness being used as an identity or as a sortof release from responsibility is spot-on and bugs me lots, too. Thank you for putting it so eloquently.

Why do you think that you are prone to minor illnesses?
j4 From: j4 Date: December 7th, 2004 06:20 am (UTC) (Link)
balance and finding the right level within a spectrum

'zactly. And depression is a spectrum, really; I mean, most of the symptoms are things that everybody gets sometimes. It's more a question of when it becomes too much, or too chronic, & starts impeding your ability to live normally. Or something like that.

Why do you think that you are prone to minor illnesses?

It's possible that it's partly post-viral hangover from getting glandular fever 8 years ago -- the doctor said at the time that it can take up to 10 years for the immune system to properly recover... OTOH, I think it'd probably be more sensible to attribute at least some of it to the fact that I try to do too much & don't get enough sleep. :-}
taimatsu From: taimatsu Date: December 7th, 2004 10:10 am (UTC) (Link)
The turning up/not turning up at work thing rings lots of bells for me. I think I moved city at the point where I might have got into the 'not knowing what counts as bad enough' situation, as it somewhat snapped me out of my previous rut. I used to take piles of days off - usually during temp jobs, so that if I didn't work, I didn't get paid, and I had no real feeling of commitment to a team or a task so I didn't feel very guilty. In my last job it wasn't taking sick days but being *late* that was my problem - I had two weeks off with the flu, but that was two weeks in which I basically did not sleep at night at all, went to the doctor three times, called NHS Direct in tears roughly every other night, and barely got out of bed. I have since felt mildly guilty about taking so long off, because of the urge to completely reverse my earlier behaviour. I've really had to let myself off the hook for it, though :)

My first week at this job was spent with a hideous cold - but I didn't miss anything! I'm hoping I've really beaten the problem this time. (That said, I'm doing it with my evening classes now, so something is still awry...)
jiggery_pokery From: jiggery_pokery Date: December 7th, 2004 01:55 pm (UTC) (Link)
This isn't a flame at all, but it might cause you to disagree strongly with me. (You might flame me, but I think you're far too reasonable for that to be at all likely.)

It may well be different for you, but I tend to find that when I get a cold, it takes me down to something like 90% efficiency, but that's all I can concentrate on. Everything I do is tinged with "I could be doing this so much better if I hadn't a cold". It doesn't take at all a bad cold for these feelings to occur, and when they occur, they tend to linger long - even weeks after the worst of the cold has gone. I tend to be a wallower, of the type you say you don't have much sympathy for. You're not attacking me, I'm not attacking you. (I'm not even trying to convince you that I'm right or that you're wrong.)

Interesting piece about depression on Radio Five Live last night: GPs want to treat depression with more counselling and less anti-depressants, but can't afford to prescribe as much counselling as they'd like. The point was made that there's no treatment that'll work for everybody, and there are a wide number of different things that tend to get lumped together here, but good practice that tends to be useful in a lot of cases is affection, attention and participation in shared activities. Seems that angsting in a LJ is broadly useful, then, except when it's not. (Not sure where the difference between support and indulgence is, but I can accept that indulengce is possible.)
anat0010 From: anat0010 Date: December 8th, 2004 05:27 am (UTC) (Link)

Incoherent Depression Ramble

My employers had to ban me from attending work. Admittedly I had completely lost it. As far as I was concerned, I was faced with 2 choices, to cope with depression, struggle along with the daily routine, which was becoming increasingly difficult, or the other solution which was becoming increasingly welcoming.

Luckily I had / have a very good medical team and wife, who recognise when I've gone over the edge, and who make sure that I do spend enough time to recuperate before I attempt normal life again.

Yes, everyone has bad days, if a bad day drags on into a bad month and you can't pull yourself out of it, you need some assistance. When the blood drips from your arms, you are unable to have a coherent conversation, or even lift your head to do anything other than stare at your feet for more than 5 minutes, its time to stop, rest and get help until normality dawns again.

As with a cold, its all a matter of degree. A few sniffles, stiffen your upper lip and struggle on. A great hacking cough, you're probably best in bed for a few days, recovery will be much quicker than if you try to struggle on. Drenched with a fever, vomiting every few hours, constantly coughing your guts up, its probably time to stop working until you get better.

Counseling *cough* *splutter*, 9 months after referral, 6 months after being assessed as 'urgent', still waiting for an appointment.
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