If you follow my blog, you probably know I have endometriosis. Endo is a chronic pain condition that one is born with. Researchers aren’t sure what causes it, and there’s virtually no way to prevent it. There’s no cure, either, so if you’ve got it, you’ve got it and that’s your life.
Living with this illness sparked my desire to write this blog. Endometriosis was the hand I was dealt, and it seemed extremely unfair that I would face discrimination or humiliation for something I couldn’t control. I wanted the word “endometriosis” to enter the conciousness of the general public, and become part of household vocabulary. So many women suffer from it, but go untreated while being told that they’re “too sensitive” to “period pain,” when the issue is much deeper and more complex than that.
But it’s easy to be a social justice warrior for a cause like that, isn’t it? Chronic conditions like endometriosis are basically genetic roulette – from birth, your fate is randomly decided. No amount of exercise, healthy dieting, or good decision-making is going to make you well. In short – it’s not fair.
But what about illnesses that are a consequence of a choice?
It’s a lot harder to advocate for those.
One thing I mention sometimes, but not often, is that I also have IBS – irritable bowel syndrome. No, I don’t avoid talking about it because it’s poop-related. No, I don’t shy away because the name is condescending and misleading (irritable? Really?). I almost never talk about it because I gave it to myself. It’s my own fault that I have IBS.
Well, I guess I can’t definitively say I know for sure that IBS was a consequence of my actions. But I feel 99% certain it is. When I was in college, I got a very bad tooth infection. As in my face swelled up, my throat swelled shut, and I could have died. In the throes of all that, I was taking a lot of antibiotics – strong ones, the strongest there is. And I took all types. For those of you who don’t know, antibiotics are great at stopping infection but not so great for your stomach. Probiotics (the opposite of antibiotics) cause healthy bacteria to grow in your gut, antibiotics kill them. Beyond healthy digestion, the goings on of your bowels contributes to every aspect of your health- even down to creating hormones that keep your mood stable. In other words, an out of balance digestive system can make a person depressed, anxious, or even bipolar (with other contributing factors of course).
So I basically massacred all my good bacteria. And it kept my throat from closing and my tooth from murdering me. But it also made me severely underweight, and caused a lasting anxiety issue. And I was also diagnosed with IBS – a disease that flares and subsides but never really goes away.
Was it wrong to take antibiotics? Of course not. Do I feel guilty about it? No. At the time, if my doctor had said “alright, there’s a chance this medicine will cause you to loose your appetite, loose weight too fast, and give you lifelong anxiety,” would I have taken the medicine anyway? Yes. It sounds dumb to say a tooth infection was a medical emergency, but it seriously was. Nothing would have changed my choice to take that medicine.
So I don’t talk about IBS so much. I don’t feel ashamed but I do feel… I don’t know, like I picked it? So complaining about it seems… unearned?
It’s similar to the way I feel about my PCOS – but my feelings towards that illness are even more complex. I wonder if I caused it, from being on birth control for so long. But it also mostly affects “voluntary” aspects of my life – mainly having children. The emotional anguish and financial burden of having PCOS was huge and affected every facet of my being – but again, complaining about it felt undeserved, and more like a first world problem than a real one.
And I’m aware of how detrimental this line of thinking is. I mean, it obviously isn’t healthy for me to blame myself for illness. I ought to love myself a bit better than that. But what’s worse is society at large’s tendency to think this way. Look at lung cancer – unlike breast cancer or lymphoma, lung cancer is rarely viewed as tragic or treated to fund-raising marathons. Rather, lung cancer is a punishment for smoking, right?
What about AIDS? What comes to mind when you think of AIDS? It’s definitely sad… and definitely still associated with sex, drugs, and homosexuality.
What about suicide? Again, tragic. Tragic and so very preventable, right? A choice, rather than a death at the end of a long battle with mental illness. Not at all like death at the end of a long battle with any cancer that’s not lung cancer.
I don’t mean this as a guilt trip, either. These statements reflect my own mixed reactions to these stigmatized diseases.
What can be done to combat this unhealthy line of thought? What changes have you made in your own mind about these things? If you have an illness, do you blame yourself for it? Have you in the past? What changed that?
I want to hear what your thoughts are. Tell me about it in the comments and let’s work through these stigmas. Changing one mind at a time is the first step to a healthy view of illness.