The list of offensive things people say to patients with chronic illness is seemingly endless. Even after all this time, it still amazes me what people feel entitled to say about my health. It also still amazes me how much it can hurt.
My diseases permeate and affect every single part of my body and my life. That’s not because I’m “obsessed” or “caught up in it” or “looking for an excuse.” It’s because my body makes too many defective mast cells, defective collagen, antibodies to my thyroid, nuclei of my cells and joints, not enough cortisol, and a cardiovascular system that is pathologically incapable of maintaining stable blood pressure and heart rate. I work hard to live around the hindrance of multiple rare diseases, and I do, to a certain extent. But that’s not the same as “moving on” or “getting past it.” It’s like eventually learning to live with a roommate that leaves their hair in the drain, is always late with rent and sometimes poisons your food.
I am actively engaged in a power struggle with my body pretty much constantly. I take medication about every thirty minutes while I’m awake and continuously overnight. I plan every part of my day, including when I have to go to the bathroom. I identify triggers I may encounter and try to minimize exposure.
One of the most important ways I reduce exposure to triggers is by communicating them to the people around me. In situations where people know me and/or I am reliant upon them to care for me, I try to educate as much as possible. Otherwise, I just give my elevator speech: “I have a rare blood disorder that causes me to have severe allergic reactions to things I’m actually not allergic to. I have hundreds of these false allergies.” Sometimes I do it to avoid confusion, sometimes because I don’t feel like talking about my health and sometimes because I know that what I say won’t change their behavior.
I rarely eat in restaurants and when I do, it is because I have talked to the chef (usually ahead of time) and identified a safe meal for me. Even when I have done this, there can be misunderstandings that require my food to be sent back and made again. Even outside of restaurants, I prefer not to eat food that wasn’t prepared by me or someone I trust. There is too much risk.
People often don’t understand how easy it is to unintentionally contaminate my food. They sometimes think the amount of an ingredient is too small to elicit a reaction and therefore not worth the trouble to make it without. And then there is the biggest risk of all: the people who want to “test” me and see if I’m “really allergic.” They think it’s too much of a strain to just accept that if I say I need something prepared a certain way that it is necessary.
Or worse, they believe we can be sickened in the way we say, but feel absolved of social responsibility. That society should not have to change to protect the few and neither should they.
When I am trying to explain the sort of things people like me experience regularly, I ask them to first think about pregnancy. Pregnant women observe a number of restrictions to keep themselves and their babies safe, such as avoidance of certain foods and medications, regular medical care, and avoidance of particular physical activities.
You know what I almost never hear people say to pregnant women?
“Why do you keep talking about being pregnant? Can’t you focus on something else?”
“It’s not healthy to talk about being pregnant all the time.”
“It’s probably not that dangerous, you should just try it.”
“I have never heard of that, I know lots of pregnant women and they say doing [triggering thing] is fine.”
“You’re not pregnant, you don’t even look pregnant.”
“You should give up your seat to that person, you don’t look like you need it to me.”
“Have you ever tried just not being pregnant?”
“Pregnancy is a mindset.”
“If I [make it without triggering ingredient], I’m going to have to cook your meal separately. Is it really worth it?”
“It’s only a little alcohol.”
“Why do you go to the doctor all the time?”
“Why would you go to the hospital for a tiny thing like that?”
“Well, it’s obviously your fault that you’re having pregnancy complications because you did [unrelated thing].”
“Your pregnancy is too much of a pain in the ass of us.”
“You can’t expect us to change things just to make it safe for you.”
“You would probably feel a lot better if you would just lose some weight.”
“You don’t need to listen what your doctor says, they are shills for Big Pharma. My cousin took [current popular panacea] and they did way better on it.”
So why is it okay to say things like this to people like me who are sick? If you replace “pregnant/pregnancy” with “chronically ill/chronic illness,” every single one of these things has been said to me many times over.
I’m a pretty brassy woman. It is not easy to embarrass me or make me uncomfortable. Except in this way. Requiring the assistance of people I don’t know well and don’t trust is inherently disarming and leaves me vulnerable. When I have to tell someone that I can’t eat that/go there/commit time to something worthwhile, I have to steel myself. I need to be safe but I also need to feel like I’m not a burden and an outsider.
I don’t ask most people to help keep me safe from every trigger I have, I just ask them to keep me safe from the worst ones. Once you start listing things, people either assume you are being dramatic or lying; or they realize you aren’t, but just don’t care. They might care that you’re sick but not enough to alter their routine in small ways.
We are not inventing our triggers to make your life more difficult. We are not pretending to be sick to get “special treatment” and are not just being “picky.” We are not sick because we don’t want to get better. We are struggling to make it through every day without triggering a reaction that could hospitalize or kill us.
Last night, my mastsister Addie was exposed to something that many people refuse to believe can actually trigger anaphylaxis. She was not even in the same room as the trigger. She need two doses of epinephrine, multiple doses of IV Benadryl, IV SoluMedrol and fluids. She was sick for hours and is recovering today.
Please take our triggers seriously. Please take our disease seriously. People die from anaphylaxis every year. In some cases, it could have been avoided if their allergies were taken seriously.
We are not telling you that the world needs to accommodate us in every way. We are asking you to help us live in it.