Tuesday, 18 June 2013

"Normal People Sick"

(A day may come when I stop taking on contentious subjects and write a post about kittens. But it is not this day!)

As most of you know I have a Tumblr blog (that’s not a recommendation folks - I do nothing but talk geekery and post photos of my cat!), and something I’ve seen a lot of recently is the idea of “normal people sick” in comparison to chronic and/or incurable conditions. The idea of comparing a bad headache to chronic migraines, regular period cramps to endometriosis, or general soreness to Fibromyalgia or other chronic pain disorders.

Believe me I could put in no further consideration and sit here and declaim about lack of perspective, insensitivity and general failure to engage brain before opening mouth, but there’s two good reasons for me to not do so. One, I don’t actually believe  there’s any intended insult there most of the time, and two it’s lazy and I like to challenge the way I’m inclined to think sometimes.

What I feel it’s worth thinking about is that chronic ill health is not something in the sphere of experience of the general population. I would venture as far as to say it is impossible to encapsulate and articulate the quality of that experience to someone whose life is not touched by chronic ill health – whether they are the sufferer or whether they are close to someone who is.

Even though it’s often highlighted just how common some of invisible illnesses are - Fibromyalgia is thought to effect anywhere between 2 and 4.5% of the UK population (Fibroaction.org) – it’s still incredibly difficult to describe in a way people can understand. Firstly, I’ve yet to come up with a simile which accurately depicts what my own conditions are “like”. They are unlike anything I’d experienced before, so even with my somewhat obsessive love of language I’m a little flummoxed.

Secondly, if someone says to me “So it’s like the ache after a good workout?” I am extremely disinclined to say “No, it’s more like every nerve ending being set on fire” – one because it’s too dramatic for my taste, and two because it still doesn’t quite scratch the accuracy itch.

Another barrier to this is that the human brain cannot remember the sensation of pain. We can remember that we have been in pain, and we can remember stimuli or scenarios which resulted in pain – but we cannot “re-feel” it. There’s a fairly simple reason for this – pain impulses come from the periphery nerves outside of the brain and spinal cord and are then fed back to the central nervous system. Memory is a far more complex process taking place in the brain alone, with no involvement from the nerves which form the origin of pain sensation signals.

(Quite! Courtesy of the wonderful butyoudontlooksick.com)

This is a two-fold problem – if you can’t explain it to someone in passing, you probably can’t explain it with absolute accuracy to a doctor either. It at least offers an insight into one of the many reasons these conditions are far from easy to detect and diagnose.

Something which occurred to me was the frequency with which the comparison “Think of the worst headache/period cramps/aching you've ever had” is used to illustrate a description of pain or discomfort in a chronic condition. Naturally the person being spoken to does indeed think of the worst of that type of pain they have experienced, and equates your pain to this. Why? Because you told them to do so.

We come back to a point I've made more than once before – comparison is not the way forwards.

Something I find oft-forgotten (including sometimes by me) is that if a fleeting cold or transient pain is the worst ill-health a person experiences, then they will complain about it. How much they do so and whether the complaining is in any way proportionate comes down to the nature of the complainant; and more importantly it’s a whole different can of worms I have no desire to split open.

I find in a lot of cases this is indeed forgotten and it’s assumed the person doing the complaining about their “normal people sick” is trying to imply their situation is worse. Whilst I won’t deny there are some ignorant people who will play that kind of game – I’m sure we've all met the type who cannot bear to have attention anywhere but upon themselves - I’d hazard a guess that at least some of these instances amount to over-sensitivity and seeking and therefore finding. Not everything is premeditated or indeed directed – but if you go in already looking for such then you’re almost sure to find it.

Having some perspective in what you say or do is a wonderful thing, but it only comes with experience. It isn't a problem limited to health either. If the worst water damage you've had to deal with is a burst pipe or a leaking tap, complaining about said experience will not garner you sympathy from a person whose house was rendered uninhabitable by flood waters for example. Neither experience is invalid, but your perspective is only formed from what you yourself have seen or done.

We’re all human, and we all moan about whatever it is that affects us on that particular day. I’m not a saint – I occasionally see a “I have a cold, it’s the end of human life as I know it” sort of proclamation and feel more than a flicker of irritation, and I will hold my hands up and say that I have no patience at all for the serial “woe is me” sorts, but that comes down to me being quite a pragmatic person by nature. Doing will always be better than moaning in my book.

Recently though I've given this more thought and done my best to get a handle on those feelings. They’re not helpful and as I've said the comments are probably not meant to hurt. Insensitivity is not to be confused with malice

Most importantly of all though, I know I wouldn't wish my ill health on my worst enemy. I’d like to think most of us are exactly the same. 

Wishing you all many spoons xx


  1. Very good advice there and something I think a lot of chronic pain sufferers struggle with. I'll admit to feeling more than a bit irate with my other half when he gets a cold and proclaims he's dying and is incapable of anything.

    Like you said though. We all complain about whatever ails us, so comparison is never going to be helpful. Its good to keep reminding ourselves though.

    1. Yup - a little reminder is good for the soul. I'm not a saint, I definitely rage about it from time to time too! x

  2. I love the way you write so eloquently about your/our health. I can only re-read the things I used to write many years ago and wonder what the f**k happened, since Fibrofog is robbing me of my vocabulary, spelling and punctuation. ;) At least I've still got my sense of humour. Phew.

    Props for using a photo of Aragorn, who always makes my day.

    Comparisons are evil in any form and cause so much trouble - especially comparisons to our former selves, of which I'm most guilty of!

    1. Thanks Leah, that's really kind of you! I have to pick a good day in order to write, otherwise I end up bereft of vocabulary and any sense of flow whatsoever!

      And there's never any reason to not have more Aragorn in our lives! :D x