Wednesday, July 13, 2011

False Assumptions

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. ~ Plato

"Honey, you're so lucky. You should be grateful you are so young! You don't have to take all these medications and deal with being sick all the time like the rest of us."

Oh come the hell on, are you serious? The statement was made to me recently in a doctor's office by a woman, maybe in her seventies, who is probably quite sweet normally. At that moment though, I just wanted to lunge at her and shake her incessantly. Not one of my finer moments I tell you! It was just myself and two other women sitting in a mini waiting room after our hearing tests; waiting to either see the doctor or take home the person we were responsible for driving there. I had made the mistake of looking up from my very challenging game of video poker and I guess the woman thought that was a perfect time to snag me into her "woe is me" session with the other absolute stranger.

I know, I know, the poor woman probably didn't mean anything by it. Yes, you could say because I felt down and out that maybe I was oversensitive to her comment. But I have to say, it struck a nerve because it was just another example of how easily we make assumptions about people based on how they look. My autoimmune disease is what many in the chronic illness world would consider an "invisible illness" most of the time. Anyone who has spent more than ten minutes with me knows that in the past few years, I have logged in more hours in doctor's offices and been on more medications than many people are in their entire lifetime. It is a fact I am not proud of and I can be well, a little sensitive about.

I really could have ignored the comment because reality was, my health concerns were none of her business. However I also felt strongly that I needed to speak up and educate this woman who made such a thoughtless comment to a stranger, however innocent it may have been. So in my head I quickly calculated if it was worth it to educate her about how looks can be deceiving or to just let it go because in the end, I would probably benefit the most from taking the path of least resistance. I decided to compromise. I turned to her and in the most patient voice I could muster, told her that I wished because of my youth that I was healthy and medication-free. I said to her that in actuality, I am currently taking six prescription medications, not to mention several other non-prescription ones because I have a chronic illness that has been difficult to get under control. Her response was simple. She just said "oh, I see" and then turned away to continue comparing notes with the other stranger. I could tell that I caught her off guard though as she appeared slightly embarrassed and I decided finally to just leave well enough alone.

What is the significance of this one simple interaction? Well, like I mentioned, it is a classic example of making assumptions based on what our preconceived notions are of people's god given physical appearances such as age, weight, skin color and the like. This woman assumed that because I am young, that I am healthy as well. Kind of funny if you think about it because I am young and yet was still sitting in a waiting room for people having hearing tests! In relationship to medical issues, I have found that in this society, looking well is a disadvantage. I have not only encountered it personally, but have met many people who have also faced this challenge. If you have a disease such as lupus, crohn's disease, depression, or fibromyalgia, there is usually not an outward sign of the fact that you are ill and/or have a disability. Wheelchairs are a concrete sign. So is wearing a scarf because you are losing your hair from chemotherapy. Being so fatigued that picking up three items in a grocery store makes you want to cry is not an outward sign. Crippling pain is not always an outward sign. I am in no way implying that people with no outward signs of illness have it worse or better than those that do. It does mean however that those with these invisible illnesses oftentimes have more explaining to do and well, that does seem to be a bit unfair; as well as tiresome and frustrating.

Now I am guessing that some of you are sitting there and wondering why a person with no outward signs of illness feels like they have to explain themselves anyways. Plain and simple, people just don't get it sometimes and they can be pretty vocal about that fact. Doctors who don't know much about autoimmune illnesses oftentimes don't get it.  The government who determines if I am eligible for social security disability took almost two years to get it. For the most part, I am blessed that many people in my life realize that even though I may look alright, chances may be good that I may not be. The reality is though that I do have to explain myself on a regular basis. I have to explain why after being able to go to the gym one day; I may not be able to meet for a walk with a friend the next day. I have to explain why I cannot presently work. I have to explain the fact that after doing spending several hours volunteering in some capacity, I am down and out for a full three days. I know I look well most of the time. I actually DO feel well a lot of the time but when I don't, it's significant. It's part of having a chronic illness.

While I was writing this blog entry, I thought of the quote from Plato that is used at the beginning of this entry and I decided to include it. I love it, but it's not entirely accurate in this situation though because the woman in the waiting room was not being unkind. She was making assumptions based on her own ideals and preconceived notions. I think a better rewrite of the quote, for this blog anyways, would be: "Be thoughtful and think before you speak, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Lesson here is that you don't always know exactly what battles other people are fighting, whether they be strangers or even friends/family members. I know I have made assumptions about people based on their appearance or behavior and have been dead wrong. So today I am going to try and remember to think before I speak. I encourage you to do the same....

Photo Courtesy of Chuck Myers


  1. Christine!!! LOVE this post. Thank you so, so much for putting a very difficult and frustrating (and common) situation into words. Between the "perfect strangers" in my life, well meaning friends and family, Doctors, Long Term Disability Insurance, my retirement company (early retirement based on disability) and Social Security Disability....I DO feel like I am having to "prove" my illness all the time. You're right - what should we care? If we are sick we are sick....NOT so easy. It's a complex emotional situation and one that we have to balance in our lives every day. Thank you for taking the time to write it so beautifully.
    Peace to you!

  2. Thanks Theresa! I had actually started writing this post last month and didn't finish it at that time because I did not want it to sound bitter. As someone pointed out (and I agree) it does sound angry and it should, because it's honest. However I found that as I continued and finished writing it, that the therapeutic value was enormous. There is also quite a difference between being angry/frustrated and being bitter. I particularly value your comment because it makes me feel like I am not the only one experiencing this...

  3. Good for you for saying something. I think it's important to educate others, as you said, about things that they are completely oblivious about. And you were respectful too, which is important.

  4. I am not always successful, but I do be respectful that is!

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I Learned quickly, working in this profession, that people oftentimes judge others based upon false assumptions. "Look at that young mother" (did you know she never had parents to look out for her?) "Look at that GAY person!?!?! ( Did you know he was never accepted by his family and picked on and beat up his whole life?) Look at that fat lady! ( She was sexually abused and raped by her father as a child)
    Look at that bum on the street! ( Do you think thats where he WANTS to be?) Look at that young healthy lady. ( Do you know what an auto immune disorder is?) Everyone has a story. The story is not always clear..... but its important not to judge, not to assume.... If only we all knew...... Thanks for the post..


  6. Thanks for the comment Sue. Yes, I am sure that you witness this kind of thing on a daily basis in your profession. It also amazes me sometimes how much I used to make snap judgements about people.I am definitely not perfect about it still but this illness had definitely opened my eyes more....

  7. It funny Chris - I'm torn between trying to hide my disease and wanting to shout to people "Just because I look okay doesn't mean I feel okay!!" When people ask me how I am, I just want to say "fine" because saying "Well, I feel drunk and dizzy like most days and have a siren blaring in right ear and can't get any peace, but I don't think I'll be on the floor vomiting today." turns everyone off. Then again, I hate that people assume I'm okay when I'm fighting to stand up straight and want to cut my head off for the screeching.

    In any case, I applaud your response and remember what I learned in school. People are like icebergs - you don't know what is underneath the surface. Practice humble inquiry and avoid making inferences - you most certainly don't know anyone's intention unless they tell only see and hear what people do and say and even that is always through your own filters. Finally, if you're going to make any assumptions, assume good faith.

    BTW - the Plato quote is one of my favorites - it's posted in my office...


  8. T ~ I do the same thing. A lot of the times I say I am "fine" or 'good" when I am not just because I get sick of hearing myself talk about it or complain!

  9. I found your blog through Teresa. I'm glad you said something. I think you handled it well. It's difficult, because although I want to look nice, I also want people to know the real truth.

  10. Thank you. I couldn't have said it better.

  11. Thanks for writing this. As someone that has been struggling with fibromyalgia for many years (undiagnosed for years), going to so many doctors it's not funny with most saying it is all in your head see a psychiatrist and send you on your way. I finally had one doctor that said, okay, let's look at this situation....... put on a medication and since then the uphill battle has slowly turned around where you have more better days than bad days. People still wonder how can a person lug wood, chainsaw, and do physical work have so many problems.... because they are all inside problems. I found by pushing myself has made be stronger and a better person for it. I might "pay for it" for several days, but feeling proud of oneself is healing in itself. Anyway, rambling on. It is good to read your blog, because now I feel I am not in this alone. There are others out there feeling the same way.

  12. Very well said, Wendy. I am also a person who finds that pushing myself is more beneficial to me that sitting back. You cannot put a price on the feeling proud of yourself and of knowing you are living your life as fully as possible~

  13. Just read this today and love how you handled this. I recently had an acquaintance --from "church" no less -- look at me with absolute disgust while I was out volunteering for a few hours at a friend's coffee house. As soon as she had the opportunity, she looked down but said out loud...Are you working? and walked away not waiting for my answer. I boiled up to my neck and restrained myself from wanting to inflict bodily injury on her. I just said, loudly, "You have got to be kidding me." That was the end of the exchange. This is why it is better to spend time alone because every time I am with people, I end up having to spend an equal amount of time in my prayer closet excercising my forgiveness muscle from all the stupid comments. Let's see now...I have had, you brought this on yourself by pursing disability when my health declined, and another telling just need to get busy, that is your problem, and another telling me...something is wrong with this disability thing, it's not right. I just could really go postal. Gotta love those church folk. So maybe I will get another dog. They don't piss me off and the money they cost at least yields faithfulness, loyalty and understanding. Maybe then my forgiveness muscles can get the rest they desperately need.

    1. Ugh, I am sorry you had such a bad experience(s). People can be so clueless sometimes....and ignorant.