We’ve all heard this phrase, and it’s a particular pain in the ass of the invisibly chronically ill and a bit of a ‘trigger statement’. There are various witty retorts to it at our disposal however – ‘Yeah and you don’t look stupid…’ and ‘Oh, I’ll try harder next time’ or ‘I know, I’m just so awesome that I can look this way and be chronically ill.’
Witty comebacks aside, what does ‘sick’ actually look like?
Not having any hair? Plenty of people have alopecia and have no hair and they’re not sick. Celebrities with full on flu still go on chat shows, dosed up with flu meds (amongst other less legal things I’m sure) and once they have their hair and make up done, they look the picture of health. Sometimes people rely on visual clues, if you’re in a wheelchair or on a mobility scooter then you look sick. Except you’re looking the same off it as you do on it, how can you look sick while sitting on it but not sick when sitting in a normal chair?
Weight loss and gain? These can both be a sign of horrible illnesses, yet if you lose a load of weight, instead of being told you look sick, you’re told you’re looking fantastic because you’re fitting into societal’s ideals of what beauty is. After losing a stone (14lb) to illness, I was told I looked ‘radiant’. My BMI was lower than supermodels, true story.
According to statistics, 96% of illnesses are invisible. So excluding horrible skin conditions or having two heads, who does look sick?
The only examples I can think of are characters in film and TV who have had make up applied to make them look sick. I propose that the whole notion of looking sick has actually come from a fictional idea of what sick looks like.
I think this fictional portrayal of sickness is actually distorting people’s idea of what sickness looks like, and as a result they miss the subtleties of real people with real illnesses. People who don’t see you day in day out rely on obvious visual markers of sickness to make a judgement. The problem is, those markers aren’t usually the whole story.
Lets play a game. I’ll post a load of pictures, and you have to guess which are the ones where I was feeling really sick, and which are the ones where I was feeling quite good/less sick.
Answer: I was just as sick in both pics. On the one on the left I’d been in bed all day resting so that I could go to see family in the evening and sit on their sofa instead. It was Christmas so I dressed up. I had excruciating crushing chest pains frequently around this time and would break out into a sweat for no apparent reason. I couldn’t walk more than a few metres and I was on 30 odd pills a day. In the very attractive picture on the right I was essentially the same, but instead of crushing chest pains I’d had constant migraines for about a week. I felt the same in both of them.
Next question. In which picture was I well and which was I unwell?
Answer: I was unwell on the right. The one on the left was before I got sick and I’d been on a 10 mile bike ride the day before. I only look like a grumpy mare because I was in a bad mood as it was a bit colder and windier than I would’ve liked. The one on the right was taken last spring, I was better than I used to be but still sick. I couldn’t walk that far and often used a walking stick but was ridiculously happy to be able to walk at all and be able to enjoy being out of the house. Says it all really.
Ok last test. Would you assume one of these people is more physically capable than the other at this moment in time? Which looks more ‘sick’?
The right one looks more sick right? On the right I’m in a wheelchair. On the left I look normal, in fact I’m at the top of a mountain, sick people don’t go to the tops of mountains, right? Wrong. These were taken in July 2013. On the left we were on holiday in Wales, we went camping so that we could drive everywhere and I could spend the whole day laying down if I needed to. We parked as near to things as we could so there was less far to walk, on this day we parked right outside the mountain railway station and got the train up the mountain, took some pics and went back again to the car. On the right we were in Germany to see a doctor, without the car, and therefore reliant on public transport, I couldn’t walk that far and deal with it all physically so we took the wheelchair. I was at the same level of illness in both.
Moral of the story? Your idea of what sick looks like is a load of rubbish. You can’t tell what someone is going through physically or mentally by looking at them. Often, if at all, the only people who can see any clue at all are very close family members, and even then, they only get a tiny snippet of the full horror of what a sick person feels.
However well meaning, saying ‘you don’t look sick’ is basically negating someone’s suffering. It’s saying, you don’t look like how you say you feel, which is only a smidge away from saying you don’t believe them when they say they feel a certain way. It’s only another smidge away again from all the doctors they’ve had to battle who have said there’s nothing wrong with them. Yes, they may be a little over sensitive to it, but can you blame them? They’re feeling like they’ve got the worst flu, day in, day out, they’ve got little to no medical help for these invisible, controversial diseases, and have had horrifically bad experiences with not being believed before. It’s just words, but words can hurt.
Instead of ‘you don’t look sick’, I wish people would just say ‘hey you’re looking great’ which is entirely different! The first completely dismisses the person’s experiences, with an undertone of accusation and judgement. The second is a compliment!
As a sick person I think we should also try to take it in the spirit it was meant, so if it was meant as a compliment, although it really gets your goat, try to put that aside and just make a mental note of how awesome you look, you’re clearly winning at the chronic illness game if you don’t even look sick, right?