On the Virtues of Whining about your Illness

Feeling sick is hard. File this one under Things you Don’t Need a Medical Degree to Know. Or file it under Things of which Everyone in this Culture Needs Constant Reminders. No argument from me either way, they’re both true. A few days after Hillary Clinton took her politically disastrous header into a limo I came down with my own respiratory illness that, if it didn’t actually make me pass out, that was probably only because my attending sent me home to lie down. Actually the same attending sent me home three separate times.

I don’t know for sure what I had, but it sucked, both in the absolute sense and the life out of me. First it was just a cough. Then it was a really unpleasant cough productive of truly disgusting sputum. Then I got winded walking a very normal 1.5 miles home from clinic. Then I felt like I had swallowed a hot poker then stuck it down my trachea for good measure. Then came headaches and fevers. Then the malaise, by which I mean I was not up to doing ANYTHING. Like, not even typing in bed. Not even mousing. Although between the cough and the fever I couldn’t actually sleep, I wanted very badly to remain horizontal. Rather than raise my head off the pillow I watched eight episodes of this feculent series in which the only actor of color plays a servant with almost no lines, and the principal female character’s main thing is that she is possessed by Satan every time she has intercourse (oh and somehow the plot just somehow leads to her repeatedly getting put in four-point restraints but not clothing). Just when I thought I was getting better I lost my voice completely.

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Point is, I felt like a dog’s armpit. So it was easy to empathize with the Democratic candidate for president while everyone was debating whether a) getting pneumonia is a sign of weakness b) not staying home when you have pneumonia is reckless c) coming to work with pneumonia is for tough guys d) not mentioning your pneumonia is fishy e) whether Hillary Clinton is being actually being slowly poisoned. It was such a pure distillation of our culture’s perverse relationship to sickness.  I mean, for the record I agree with item b, but most people really have no choice about whether or not to go to work sick. Next year, if all goes according to plan, I will be one of those people.

As a person with the good fortune to expect general physical wellness on a typical day, I usually try to be stoic about illness out of respect for everyone I know that’s living with chronic disease and probably has limited sympathy for my temporary discomforts. I don’t know if it was the fever making me a little loopy, or my frustration at having made it through all of third year without getting sick only to get knocked on my behind in the middle of an elective I’d been looking forward to for months. And also in the middle of residency applications, did I mention that? At the moment I submitted mine my temp was 102.8. I’m certain that I uploaded a picture of myself with my application and not this picture of the kid that dressed as a fart for Halloween, but only because I double checked in the morning. So yeah, I was in a weird mood, and for whatever the reason, this time I threw myself a big, public, pity party.

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Really everyone was very sympathetic, even people who endure significant pain on a regular basis. I have great friends and colleagues. But here’s where I’m going with this. I think it is actually good to whine about being sick, or injured, or otherwise uncomfortable in your body. We’re all under a lot of pressure to perform good health. Sometimes for concrete reasons, like fear of discrimination, sometimes for more nebulous reasons, like fear of seeming weak. It’s the worst for people with chronic disease, who paradoxically can expect less sympathy from their support network the longer their disease goes on. When that’s your new normal, everyone expects you to suck it up and accept what’s happening to your body. I see this even in the hospital, a place that exists only so that people can go there when they’re sick. I’ve had numerous patients apologize for complaining about their symptoms, or for feeling upset about them, even though it is literally my job to find out in great detail how they are feeling. But who can blame them? They live in the same world that considers it a personal failing on Hillary Clinton’s part that a bacterium (afaik) colonized her respiratory system.

So I think everyone should whine. People who are acutely ill should whine. People who are chronically ill should feel especially entitled to whine. Because feeling sick is really hard. And when everyone tries to act healthy all the time, it makes it easier to pretend that being sick is an aberration. And it makes it easy to deny how profoundly it affects people’s lives. Maybe being honest about your own experience will make it safe for the next person open up about theirs.