We all have muscle aches and pains, we all get tired, we all get depressed, we all have negative thoughts, and on and on it goes. I’m sure that it is very true that we may have experienced these things from time to time, but someone who has been diagnosed with a life long illness experience their symptoms on an extreme level and on most days.
I rarely speak to people about what it’s like living with multiple illnesses because I’m invariably met with the same responses from those who have limited experience will illnesses and disability. This response begins with “We all”; “We all experience [insert symptom I was just describing]. I’m sure the person is trying to make me feel better and in some way trying to comfort me, but in actual fact they are dismissing me. They are not acknowledging or validating the difficulty of being sick and in pain every day of your life. They are not providing any means of comfort or making me feel better, instead I come away feeling, belittled and much worse about the situation I am in.
I don’t actually understand why people feel the need to do this, the need to say to someone that we all experience the symptoms that the person has. I simply don’t get it! Yet it happens all the time and not just to me. People I know who have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome get told that we all get tired, but there is a lot more to this condition than being tired. People with endometrioses get told that we all get period pain, but I’m sure it’s not to that same intensity and duration as they do. My favourite “we all” statement was when I described my battle with PMDD as like having PMS but on steroids and for about two weeks. The response was but we all get PMS. Okay, but do you spend most of the time thinking of nothing else but ways in which you can end your life? The severity of the depression is just one aspect that makes PMDD very different to the PMS “we all experience”.
My disability means that I am constantly in pain in my muscles and joints. They all take turns as to what hurts the most. But not a single minute of the day goes by when I am not in pain in some area of my body as a result of my conditions. Very rarely do I complain about this, except if it is rather bad. But without fail in mentioning my pain there is always the comment we all have aches and pains. Yes, I’m sure that’s true, and particularly if you are getting older, but I’ve been in this level of pain since the day I was born. I don’t know any different. You know different, and no doubt your pain levels waxes and wanes, it’s probably not there all the time. When my muscles cramp, I can actually see it in action and feel the ‘plank of wood’ my muscle has now become. I am not saying that my pain is worse than yours, or that if you’re not sick or have a disability then you don’t have pain, but the severity and degree in which the pain occurs is very different for someone with a life long disability and/or illnesses that’s primary symptom is pain.
Let’s not forget about the mental illness symptoms of we all,.. We all get depressed, we all get anxious, we all get negative thoughts. Come inside the mind of a person who has been diagnosed with a severe mental illness, and then you might want to change your mind that we all get depressed, or anxious and have negative thoughts. Better still instead of dismissing the person’s experience with mental illness or any illness for that matter, why don’t you let them explain to you what it is like living with that condition, so that you have a better understanding of what it is like for them living with that condition.
I think that we live in a society where we are quick to assume what life is like for the other person. I do it too but with healthy people. I think that their lives must be perfect and that everything works out well for them, and that they would not know what it means to have your life plan constantly disturbed by sicknesses. But the reality is they are probably dealing with other things that I don’t know about and can’t understand, just like I live a life with multiple illnesses and they can’t understand what that is like. What might be helpful for all of us, is to not assume, but instead ask questions and listen to what the person’s life is actually like. I think we all put on an appearance and show the side of our lives that we want others to see. I do it all the time, which is why very few people know just how sick I actually am. But I also don’t open up to protect myself from the well meaning, yet very unhelpful “we all…” statements.
So next time you are talking to your friend or family member who is sharing the symptoms of their life long illnesses or disabilities, please don’t try to make them feel better by saying “we all…”, but instead listen to what they are describing to gain a better understanding of what it is like for them living with multiple illnesses or disabilities. You’re making them feel better by allowing them to share the difficulties of their life and validating their experience. If you want to make them feel better, why don’t you share with them things in life that you struggle with, instead of shutting down the conversation with the “we all…” statement?