Category Archives: bullying

When People Say, “You Don’t Look Sick.”

Every person living with a seemingly invisible illness has lived this scenario. Maybe you’re speaking to a distant family member when it happens. Perhaps you run into a former classmate or friend from work. It could be the sweet lady who sits in front of you in church. Regardless, we’ve all been in those situations where someone says, “You don’t look sick.” It’s a double-edged sword of sorts. On the one hand, this person thinks they’re paying you a compliment. On the other, it only adds to the invalidation we often feel. So, let me make it clear to all those who aren’t living with chronic illness. I think I can safely speak on behalf of all those with invisible illnesses when I say- Please, for the love of all that is good and kind and understanding in this world, stop saying we don’t look sick. It just isn’t conveying the nicety that you’re trying to insinuate.

For instance, if I “look healthy,” there’s been some serious effort that has gone into that façade. I begin preparing to go into public hours before I go. I know there will be people who try to diagnose my current situation based on how I look that day. I save myself effort and aggravation if I try to look like everyone else. This has nothing to do with make up or wardrobe choice- it has everything to do with waking up in time for my medicine to start working before I go in public. It is about me achieving a manageable blood pressure and often using enough heat or ice to make my joints feel functional.

Let me try to explain. I look mostly healthy. Don’t get me wrong- I’m exceedingly aware of all the ways illness keeps me from measuring up to society’s standard of health. However, I look like every other thirty something for the most part. This means when I see doctors I often feel like I don’t meet the bar for what is “sick enough” for them. I typically feel that my smile or laugh or even pleasant disposition (let’s be honest, that comes and goes) inhibits me from getting the care I need. Quality of life is not easily quantified, so I often feel like it is being determined at face value rather than by my actual experience. It’s frustrating. So, when you tell me I “don’t look sick” you’re listing another problem that keeps me from receiving care- rather than giving me a compliment. I completely understand that isn’t your goal; however, I would be lying if I pretended that I perceive that phrase as some sort of compliment.

If I dig into that phrase a little deeper, I’m able to understand why it strikes me as hurtful so quickly. When we say that someone does not look sick, we are essentially telling that person he/she has no obvious disability. This means as my illness progresses, and I inevitably begin using a walker or wheelchair, I will start meeting society’s standard of looking sick. I won’t necessarily be any sicker than I am right now. However, as my mobility changes, I will meet the definition others expect me to fit to be “sick enough.”

Please, understand that I am not one to nitpick over semantics. If you say something to me with the best of intentions, I will do my best to perceive it as you intended. I am not trying to make anyone hyper-aware of their language. However, in this world where I believe all decent people are called to learn how to constantly be better and to make their language as inoffensive as possible, I want to challenge you to say something different. In all reality, it’s not necessary to comment on how anyone looks anyway. Try asking someone how things are going- and genuinely wait for a response. Maybe tell someone that you are glad to see them- rather than invalidating their illness, you are letting that person know you value your time with them. I feel like all of us are above commenting on someone’s physical appearance.

Oh yeah, and if you make a mistake and accidentally tell someone they “don’t look sick,” no worries. All you must do is add some empathy. Follow up with “but I understand that you really don’t feel well.” See? That’s all it takes. I promise- I will always appreciate your empathy and understanding.

Peace, love, and health, friends.

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What $50 Buys When You Have a Rare Disease/ Disorder

About a year ago, I went to a new doctor. My hip was dislocating, and my primary doctor thought I needed to see a specialist. The specialist was the “new doctor,” and let’s just say I was not impressed. I waited a couple weeks to see the doctor (by which point my hip pain went from excruciating to simply quite painful); I paid my $50 co-pay to see the specialist. I had the x-rays and preliminary tests the doctor requested. I followed the rules. I was as prepared as I could possibly be as a patient. I went into that appointment feeling as though I was holding up my end of the bargain wonderfully.

I wasn’t prepared for the doctor to fail me completely. Here’s what happened. The doctor talked to me for five minutes and made assumptions. When I told him I had a rare disorder called Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, he nodded and said he had researched it. I told him my hip seemed to be coming out of socket. There was horrible pain and instability. When the hip was out of socket one leg was longer than the other, and the foot of the longer leg was turned to the side and would not face the front. The doctor chuckled and said it was impossible that I had handled a dislocation without going to the ER.

Have you even met me? I have EDS! I pop dislocations back into place daily. I’m asking for help keeping this darn hip in place- not asking for your judgment about whether or not this hip is actually dislocating. The doctor went on to tell me that during his research of “Eglers-Dallos” (What? Seriously, dude? No one even gave you a pronunciation guide?) he had never come across any data that showed that patients had pain or dislocation associated with the condition. He told me that if I really felt I was in that much pain he couldn’t help me, and the cause could be more psychological than physical pain. Seriously, Dr. Deficient, just because you don’t understand my illness, that doesn’t mean that I am faking it- or that it’s all in my head. (By the way, even if it were all in my head, you have a responsibility to me as your patient to assist me in getting help.) It means you need to educate yourself more. It at least means you need to do some serious work on your bedside manner. Did you skip that class in medical school? Are you kidding me? I paid fifty dollars to be laughed at and shamed?

Herein lies the problem for those of us with rare diseases/ disorders. Few doctors are knowledgeable about our illness. We are forced to play a guessing game of which doctor will give us adequate care- and which doctors will brush us off because they aren’t educated in our condition. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is somewhat rare- and proper physician education about the syndrome is even rarer. I understand that. I don’t expect every single doctor to understand my condition. However, I do expect all medical professionals to listen to me. Trust me to be an advocate for my condition. It is completely fine with me if you Google my disorder. I promise not to judge you for not knowing. However, if you make me feel ridiculous and silly when I am trying to explain my condition to you- that’s not okay.

Here’s the embarrassing part of this story- I didn’t say a word. I felt like he was accusing me of lying or at least exaggerating, and I was so ashamed that I couldn’t plead my own case. Even though I at no point wanted or requested pain medication, I felt as though this doctor believed I was just seeking narcotics. I was embarrassed. I felt criminalized. I left that appointment and sat in my car and cried like some kind of victim. I allowed that to happen. I am educated about my disorder, and I had every right to stand up for myself and tell that doctor that his “Eglers Dallos” research was wrong. But I didn’t. I nodded my head and said “thank you” and “I’m sorry” then cried in my car. Stupid. Just stupid.

For those of us with rare disorders, this is what we can expect in exchange for our co-pay, and that is not acceptable. This is why World Rare Disease Day matters so much to me and others within the rare disease community. On this day, we get to make a little noise for the disorders that few in the medical community discuss. We get to inform those on our social media and in our day to day lives what our disorders are all about. We get to spread awareness, so that in the future maybe other sufferers of our illness (and other rare diseases) won’t feel like a victim due to their doctor’s lack of understanding.

I am not bashing the medical community in the least. I have had the pleasure of meeting some fantastic medical professionals- doctors, nurses, physician’s assistants, etc. I am so grateful for the caring and considerate people I have met through various medical procedures and appointments. I am saying, however, that we as patients have to stand up and be our own advocates. Every doctor has a responsibility to listen to us- and every member of the rare disease community has a responsibility to make themselves heard. So, do me a favor, friends. This World Rare Disease Day (February 29, 2016) educate a friend, a family member, or your social media followers about a rare disease that is near and dear to your heart. I’m not asking that you share about Ehlers- Danlos Syndrome specifically. Share about Wilson’s Disease. Share about Charcot- Marie- Tooth Disease. Share about Retinitis Pigmentosa. Share about a disease that affects someone you love, because that person you love deserves a lot more understanding than what they’re currently getting for their co-pay.

Peace, love, and health.

** By the way, friends, I was eventually vindicated for my terrible doctor experience. Another specialist ordered an MRI of my hip. She found that my hip labrum had degenerated and was not capable of keeping the joint in socket correctly. Surprisingly, this new doctor went to medical school with Dr. Deficiency (not his real name- that was just the kindest thing I could think to call him) and sent him a report of her findings.

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Back off, Bullies.

There was a girl in junior high who knew every other student’s weakness. She knew which kid would be hurt by being called fat or ugly or dirty or (in my case) “frog eyes.” (It’s true. I have huge eyes. I’m over it now. Besides, I like to think they give me an Amanda Seyfried vibe . . . Yeah, okay- maybe not.) She would use this mental list of everyone’s weaknesses as ammunition to wound most effectively. While I commend her excellent memorization skills, I realize now this girl was just a bully. At the time, I thought she just happened to speak the truth that was the most painful, but I realize now that she was intentionally taking aim with the most painful arrows- because that’s what bullies do.

Now, I’ll give this girl a break, because she may have grown up to be a perfectly lovely individual. I don’t really know. I only know that I would never want to be judged based on my 13 year old actions. What I learned from her, though, is that there are people that will wound without any regard for you. Even in the non- junior high world, bullies exist.

The real question is why I’m choosing to write about them now. I’m 31 years old; I should be over crying in the girls’ bathroom about being called “Froggy.” In many ways, I am over it. However, the more time I spend trying to support and advocate for the chronic illness community, the more I realize that we are easy targets for bullies. I keep seeing my friends- my chronic illness family- used and abused, and it makes me angry. So, I’m speaking up- for all of us. Back off, bullies. We’re sick, but we’re not victims. Every type of bullying I mention isn’t necessarily a type I have personally experienced. It is, however, a growing trend I see among my chronic illness friends, and today, I’m asking that you lower your metaphorical weapons.

Adult bullies aren’t as easy to understand and categorize as the thirteen year old “mean girls.” Some grown up bullies think they’re helping or just showing “tough love.” I get that. I’m sure there are times that I have had the best of intentions and just gotten everything very wrong. That’s why today, I’m calling out the grown up “mean girls (and their gender/ age equivalent)” that may have no clue what they’re really doing.

The social media merchant. There are so many online businesses right now, and I applaud anyone who is making money by selling a product they love. That’s awesome. Seriously, you rock, and I admire your effort. Having said that . . . stop exploiting my chronic illness. Do not tell me that your product will cure my genetic illness (that causes my very DNA to be flawed) just because it cleared up cousin Suzie’s eczema. All the InstaGram before and after pictures in the world do nothing for my community. Let me be clear- if you tell me about a great product that you sell, I am capable of understanding that it’s a business. I’ll listen to your sales pitch and thank you for sharing. However, if you are a perfect stranger and approach me just because you heard that I am chronically ill (and this happens way too much) to tell me that if I wanted to feel better I should try your product . . . then NO!

How is that bullying? Let’s think about the situation. A person who is peddling whichever “snake oil” happens to be popular is telling me that I am choosing my illness because I won’t buy their product. You are telling me that buying your product is “an investment in health,” but you fail to see that I spend every day investing every ounce of my mental, physical, and fiscal resources in my health. I’ve seen kind and well-meaning people post on social media that “ . . . if you’re tired of spending money on doctors, make an investment in [such and such product].” Really?!? Your shake, pill, or oil is going to stop my need to see a qualified medical professional? No, it’s not. Think about what you’re saying. I have my doubts that any magic concoction is going to trump the doctors and scholars at Vanderbilt University or Cleveland Clinic. Are you truly trying to tell me that I have wasted my money and time going to these places rather than using your social media cure?

The Pharisee. Let’s be clear; I am a person of faith. I was raised in church, and I am truly grateful for the values of love and kindness I was taught there. I am not calling out those with religious convictions. I have been so blessed with thoughtful people who have prayed for me when my health was in a difficult place. But then, there are the Pharisees. The Pharisees throughout Christian scripture were people who chose to focus on laws- rules of right and wrong- rather than the values of love and kindness Christ came to teach. They were far more concerned with the letter of the law rather than the spirit behind the law. The Pharisees saw every affliction as repayment for wrongdoing- rather than just an unfortunate situation. Sadly, these people still exist today. I recently read a post from a fellow sufferer of chronic illness where she was told that she simply chooses to be ill. A minister told this poor soul that if she had enough faith, if she prayed enough, if she followed Scripture closely enough and did enough good, she would have already been healed.

Yeah, sorry, Mr. (or Mrs.) 21st century Pharisee, but that’s not how life works. My body is human, and it is afflicted with some very un- heavenly illnesses. I refuse to believe that I caused this or that following your list of rules would cure me. I refuse to believe that I was pre-destined to this suffering. So, if you’re telling me that I made this happen- you’re being a spiritual bully. I did not choose to have flawed DNA. I do, however, choose to live every day loving others and being kind. And, if you are walking around telling others that they chose their illness, their own personal, physical hell, you haven’t made that same decision. You’re being a spiritual bully.

My husband (and I only share this because he has given me permission to – and insisted that I- do so) suffers from depression and is under medical treatment- which has been wonderfully successful to this point. In the wake of Robin Williams’ death, he was met with his own personal host of Pharisees. Pastors and other people of conviction took to their pulpits and social media to blame Robin Williams’ death on his lack of faith. I’m not sure that these speakers understood how much their words were undermining the efforts of the medical professionals who were treating some in their congregation for similar illnesses. The truth, however, is that Mr. Williams was ill. He struggled with depression and mental illness. I don’t know Robin Williams’ personal beliefs- they’re his and not my place to pry. I do know, however, that he was sad and ill. I know that others with mental illness need to hear kindness and compassion for his situation- not blaming and hatefulness. My heart broke as post after post and uninformed sermon after sermon we were forced to hear mental illness blamed on weakness, lack of faith, and a poor relationship with our Creator. In fact, the bullies were waxing eloquently on a situation they didn’t understand. Bullies do that. Pharisees do that. Sorry, Pharisees, but I would very much like it if you would leave me and my husband (and the lepers) alone.

The consort. Let’s talk relationships. My husband is wonderful; he really is. However, what I keep seeing repeatedly among my chronic illness friends is that relationships are especially difficult in the chronic illness world. Night after night I message with friends who are facing verbal (and sometimes physical) abuse, because their illness is making them not meet the aggrandized standards of their significant other. I know that guilt. There was a time that I truly prayed that my husband would leave me, because I knew he deserved better than this sick, shell of a wife. My remorse for the person I was becoming was all-consuming at times.

Having said all that, not once in all this grief have I deserved abuse. Trust me- I was abusing myself plenty; I certainly didn’t need more guilt. My husband was fantastic. He knows I’m a hot or that sometimes I go a couple days without washing my hair (much like the college students he teaches), but he has never once made me feel like less of a person. I have other friends who have not had that luxury. Please, spouses, partners, and significant others, listen to me when I say- back off! If your significant other is ill (mentally or physically), love them for who they are- every flawed inch of them. Due to their roles as a disabled/ chronically ill adult, if the house isn’t clean; heck, if the spouse isn’t clean, give him/her a break. They’re doing their best. If you look at the person you profess to love and see them as less of a person because of their illness, you’re bullying them. If you refuse to believe their illness is real- you’re a bully. You have chosen to face life with this person. There is a part of them you chose to love completely. You are supposed to be their cheerleader. You are supposed to be their advocate. If you are anything less, you are being a bully.

For those of you who are in such a relationship, I am sorry. I am truly sorry, and I sincerely hope and pray you eventually receive the understanding and deliverance you deserve. This treatment is toxic to your illness.

I fear in writing all this that you think I’m a jerk. The last thing I want is for you to think that I sit around waiting to call others bullies. (I’m fairly confident that would actually make me a bully, and that’s certainly not my intention- and that would defeat my entire purpose.) I simply want to make everyone think. I want to make others realize that it is not okay to blame someone’s illness or circumstance on that person. Even if you can’t see something, that doesn’t make it a figment of someone’s imagination. Believe me. Believe that I didn’t choose this life. Believe that I wanted more than this for my life, but I understand that this is the genetic hand I’ve been dealt. No one gets to bully me for something that I couldn’t escape.

You, my sweet sufferer of chronic illness, no one gets to victimize you either. We’re here. We’ve got each others’ backs, and, today, we’re asking that the bullies lay aside their weapons. So, bullies, back off. We mean it. We aren’t your victims, and we will retaliate- in our own crazy, chronic way. And, seriously, who even knows what that means?

Peace, love, and health, friends.