Leslie, who writes the blog, “Getting Closer to Myself,” wrote a post today about chronic illness and asking for help. In it, she asks “If you are chronically ill, are you sick, too?”
Leslie has lupus. Recently one of her relatives told her that she didn’t view Leslie as “sick.” To her, people with cancer or mental illnesses qualified as “sick” but Leslie, whose lupus frequently makes her feel perfectly awful, doesn’t. Leslie’s lupus strikes at random, and like most of us who cope with chronic pain and illness, she tries hard to appear perfectly healthy and well even when she’s not.
Dictionary.com defines “sick” as “afflicted with ill health or disease; ailing.” The same website defines “ill” as being “of unsound physical or mental health; unwell; sick…”
Obviously, you can have a chronic illness and have the flu, too, just like you can have a broken leg and a bad cold. But I have never thought of myself as “sick” or “unwell” just because I have rheumatoid arthritis. Certainly, it’s a disease that can make my body unsound and ailing, but those conditions aren’t constant.
Even the hip bursitis I’m dealing with right now doesn’t fit the meaning of “sick,” to me, even though the pain from it is constant. Instead, I think of it, simply, as pain.
Like Leslie’s relative, when I think of “sick,” I think of someone with the flu or a stomach bug or pneumonia. And, like her, when I think further into the other, various meanings of the word, I think of a pedophile or a murderous madman like Charles Manson. People like that are truly sick. But I don’t think of Leslie and her lupus. I don’t think of myself.
This is not to say that I am not occasionally sick with the symptoms of RA. But I think of it more as being “ill,” and as being temporary. I am not a “sick chick,” as a group blog about chronic illness calls itself, in the plural. To me, that phrase brings up an image of several preciously delicate female baby chickens with the vapors, draped languidly over multicolored fainting couches, each one fanning herself weakly, and with a jeweled vial of smelling salts close to hand.
I really don’t fit the bill. Sure, I have an autoimmune disease that sometimes makes me feel tired and ill, and sometimes makes my joints stiffen and become so painful that moving is difficult, if not impossible. RA permanently disables many people who get it, but hasn’t done that to me yet. And even if it does someday, I still won’t be “sick.” I still won’t be “ill.” I’ll simply have RA, and when I’m not flaring, I’ll feel just fine.
“Sick” isn’t another word for “chronic illness.” It’s just sick.
And as for asking for help, which was the main focus in Leslie’s post? Not looking “sick” or acting “sick” when we’re flaring makes it pretty hard for people to understand that we do have a chronic illness that occasionally flattens us. And not appearing or acting sick definitely makes it hard for us to ask for help, since we’re proud of our independence, work hard to hide our disability, and really dislike admitting defeat, which is what asking for help often seems like.
These issues will always be a part of having a chronic illness and coping with chronic pain. They always have been. And there’s no easy solution that I can see.
Still, I’ve learned over the years to swallow my pride and ask for help when I need it. I don’t always like to, and the people I ask help from aren’t always gracious about providing it. That, too, is simply reality. Life doesn’t always give us roses. If we’re lucky, we have friends and relatives who do their best to understand us and treat us with love and compassion. But if they don’t, we need to understand that sometimes, they’re just simply clueless. If we haven’t told them the truth about our condition or explained it to the best of our ability, then we can’t expect instant empathy from them.
If we have explained and they’re still not helpful or understanding, then we have to look inward to pull from our own reserves of strength and courage. We also need to widen our circle of friends, and try to find the sort of people who are gifted, like us, with toughness and empathetic compassion.
It’s always a challenge, isn’t it.