‘I just can’t explain hay fever to someone who doesn’t have it. What it’s like to not have a runny nose for once.’
‘Is it like after a long cold?’
‘Yeah, like a cold which lasts forever, and you’re not allowed to complain about it. Like you’re not allowed to complain about period pain. It’s just life.’
I was slightly saddened as I had this exchange with my best friend, N. N suffers from really bad hay fever, but this is the first time she has addressed it quite so openly with me. Before this, she kept stoic. Today however, lack of sleep and period pain made her finally break protocol. For the first time she tried to make me understand.
I’m not sure she realises how much I understand.
Oh, sure, I don’t suffer from hay fever. That’s one of the few ways my body behaves. I can’t understand the pain of runny noses, watery eyes, constant coughing, being unable to breathe, etc, etc. It sounds hellish. N is now swapping between different meds on a weekly basis in order to keep her body reacting properly, in the hopes of having a few normal days. She can no longer stand being near her beloved cat because the combination of cat hair and pollen is too much. I don’t truly understand any of that.
I do, however, understand the social expectation to hide long-term illness, and it sucks.
Being ill for a week is fine. Being injured or having a longer term illness is fine as well, as long as there’s an end in sight. Then people have all the sympathy in the world for you – as long as you’re healing. You’re given a free pass to be ill for a while.
After a while though, normal life has to resume. Don’t get me wrong, I understand it. We can’t all put our lives on hold forever – whether you’re ill or you know someone who is ill, it can’t rule your life.
However, it’s ridiculous that we feel we can’t voice such issues. I agree fully with N. There comes a point where you’re expected not to complain any more about ill health. I’ve only really been suffering with my joints (mystery degenerative joint pain which makes me unable to stand some days, though some days I can seem perfectly fine asides from the odd wince) for about 9 months, and already I’m getting to the point where I feel abashed and ashamed to yet again mention my joint pain. Even when I’m struggling to stand, or have to have five minutes sat out of a group activity, I feel ashamed. I feel that, according to societal rules, I should be pretending that I’m perfectly fine. It’s ridiculous.
Why do we do this to ourselves? I’d much rather know when my friends or family are having a bad day so that I can better support them, or at least so I’m aware. I’m sure plenty of people feel the same way. So why have we made this stupid rule where we don’t talk about our health problems, for fear of being seen as a ‘complainer’?
The truth is, chronic health problems do not go away. I know this all too well (joints, migraines, mental health). We cannot just sweep them under the rug. All we are doing is de-legitimising the health problems we have. We should instead own our bad days and our good days, and tell people about them, if they want to know. When someone asks how we are, let’s not say ‘oh, I’m fine, thanks.’ and suffer in silence.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that we need to go around being unwell and miserable all the time and spreading the misery around. That doesn’t help either. I’m definitely not saying that we should believe ourselves to be so ill that we think we can’t function. That would be unhealthy too. However, if we feel like we want to grumble about health, let’s damn well grumble about health. Get it out in the open and then maybe the beast won’t be so big.
If you know someone with a chronic health condition, please give them the idea that they can talk about it. It will probably really help them to be able to just mention it sometimes. I know that if I’m having a bad day, it feels worse to have to hide it. So let’s stop silencing such things.