Friday, March 8, 2013

Choices (Part Two) - Life Isn't Fair

“Rather than embrace the immutable and humanizing fact that we are all dying at all times, we point the finger of scorn at those who die more quickly wondering how they have brought it upon themselves.” 
God is No Laughing Matter – Julia Cameron

I found this quote in the back of one of my notebooks the other day. I remember a few months ago reading it, and copying it down because it struck me as interesting, but even as I did I didn’t 100% agree with it. Yes, I have come across people who judge me for being ill. I have come across people who will make assumptions about why I am in the position I’m in now, or others who believe I could be fixed if I just... and the fact that I don’t want to, must mean I don’t want to be well.

For the majority of people, I don’t think the word “scorn” fits though. I think most comments of this nature come from a very genuine, if misguided, desire to help. Others, I think, come from the naïve human believe, which we all hold to some degree, that life should be “fair.” If someone gets sick because they smoke, do drugs, eat an unhealthy diet etc. then we can comment that it’s sad, but we can feel secure in the belief that it won’t happen to us because we take care of ourselves. We can feel confident that they did indeed bring it on themselves, and we aren’t going to make that same mistake.

One of the most common questions I get asked is whether I have tried a gluten-free diet. When I say I’ve been gluten-free because of coeliacs for over ten years, the response is often one of sadness. I think people sometimes hold on to the idea that you can cure everything with something like a gluten-free diet like a talisman, fighting off the illnesses they either have now or want to avoid in future. But unfortunately this isn’t always the case.

The reality is sometimes people who take the best care of themselves get very, very sick. Sometimes people who have terrible lifestyle habits enjoy a disgustingly unfair level of good health. Some people have immediate success with either conventional, or alternative treatments, and others of us have to struggle to find anything that will make even the slightest bit of difference. Because life isn’t fair, and that’s just the way it is.

I felt this tied into my first post about the choices people with chronic illness face, because as I wrote I was trying to pin down why it is that everyone seems to have an opinion on which options you should take when it comes to treatment. I was also trying to pin down why it is that I, and many others, get defensive when others make suggestions about what we “should” be doing.

In many cases, I think making suggestions probably comes down to wanting to share the happy. If something is working, won’t everyone want to try it? But the reality is whatever it is that’s working for you or someone you know; it may not work for everyone else. Other people may have already tried it, it may just not be right for them, or it just may not be a priority right now. When I dismiss something another patient suggests, it doesn’t mean I don’t believe it worked for them, just that it either hasn’t worked for me already, or there’s a very good reason I can’t or don’t want to try it.

So why is it that I get defensive?

I don’t mind people making suggestions, but I do mind if people push them or indicate that I’m being unreasonable not to try them. For example, I’m sure cider vinegar does have many healing properties but, given that I’m allergic to apples, I don’t have any interest whatsoever in trying it. I don’t expect people to know I’m allergic to apples, so I don’t object to the suggestion, but I do get irritated if people push it once I’ve told them it’s not an option for me. The allergy isn’t going to go away if you keep regaling me with the benefits of apples. Even if there isn’t a reason, and someone just doesn’t want to try whatever it is you’re pushing, I’m not convinced nagging is the best way to change that. If it’s something that you believe in, then by all means suggest it – but ONCE is enough.

It does also bother me when suggestions are given with an air of authority or with the implication that the suggester is an expert in the subject. Unless you really are an expert in both the thing you are suggesting AND the disease(s) you are proposing to treat you could be doing more harm than good. I can’t tell you how many times someone has suggested something that would actually do more harm than good for me. Not necessarily because the thing itself is harmful in general but because it is harmful for my particular illnesses. I can’t say this enough times: Just because something is natural does not automatically make it safe. I am old enough and wise enough to do my own research, and make informed choices, but I look back at teenage-recently-diagnosed-me, and realise that I wasn’t always. If you’ve heard about something you think could help, but you don’t know all the facts, just admit that. I’m far more likely to trust someone who says: “I don’t know much about it, but would this be helpful for you?” than to someone who insists they know exactly what I need, despite evidence to the contrary. 

The other thing I find hard to deal with is when suggests have an element of blame attached to them. A series of posts circulated on facebook recently depicting images of fruits and vegetables, against images of medications with captions like “when are we going to understand this is the cure (the produce) and this is just a band aid (the medication)?” or others suggesting that medications are the cause of all illness, and we’d all be cured if we just treated everything with honey.

I do strongly belief in the positive effect diet can have on illness, and I think alternative therapies can be very beneficial, but neither are a cure. I have always had a good diet, including my 5+ a day, but I still have health problems. I’m not sick because I didn’t eat enough fruit and vegetables as a child, nor can all my problems be blamed on medication. Suggesting anyone brought their illness on themselves by diet or any other means will most likely come across as condescending and, as the quote suggests, like scorn whether that is your intention or not. 

If you haven’t had first hand experience of chronic illness in your own family, it can be easy to believe that you go to the doctor or alternative medicine practitioner, they tell you what’s wrong, they treat you and you get better. It is hard to fathom that sometimes there isn’t a simple answer. It’s also hard to understand that just because something is natural, that doesn’t automatically mean it’s safe or beneficial.  

I think basically it comes down to, the suggestions aren’t the problem, but sometimes the way suggestions are made can be offensive. My advice to people would be to think about how you would feel when confronted by what someone else think you “should” be doing. Take a moment to listen and to ask some questions before jumping in with what you think the solution is. Posing your suggestion as a question can help too. Rather than “You should...” think about “Would _______ help?” or “Have you ever heard of _________?” 

And most of all, remember that it’s not always as simple as cause and effect with chronic illness. So leave the blame behind, at least until you have all the facts.

Thanks for reading, 
Little Miss Autoimmune

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