This post is going to be vain and self-indulgent, but I’m putting it out there anyway in case any of you can relate.
I hate what my illness has done to my body. Not in the reduced function and pain (although that sucks too), but to my appearance.
So much of our identity and how others perceive and therefore treat us is constructed from the way we physically present ourselves. I’ve been looking at research into healthcare professionals forming judgements based on their beliefs and attitudes about pain and pain patients, and how that reflects their practice (hint: it does, and often not in good ways). It has been said that it is hard work presenting as a credible pain patient, and that this is particularly difficult for women. We are faced with the dilemma of having to appear ‘sick’ enough to warrant treatment, while still not looking like we’ve ‘let ourselves go’ (because that might mean we’re depressed, and that might mean the pain is all in our heads). I’ve actually had a (male) general practitioner tell me I would feel better if I put more effort into my appearance. My mother, while seeing a (male) lawyer regarding a motor vehicle accident (she was in a full leg cast at the time), was told “she was made up so she couldn’t be that bad”. We can’t win.
But truthfully, that isn’t all of it. It’s not even the visible illness markers, like my cane, or a walker, or my surgical scar (which I am oddly proud of and wish I had the chance to show off more often). These things are interpreted by the general public as signifiers of specific problems, which, while still a bit embarrassing at times, are associated with legitimacy and sympathy, and a sense that it’s not your fault.
The things I find humiliating, and that I get furious about, are the little, silent things about my appearance, that others don’t attribute to my illness. My frizzy hair, the result of autoimmune hair loss and my body’s feeble attempt to slowly regrow the lost hairs. The thin patches in my hair from the same. The ironic extra hair on my extremities caused by my body’s lack of capacity to regulate temperature, and the excessive sweating caused by the same. My frequent inability to deal with this hair because sitting at a salon or bending to shave my legs is physically difficult. My red, blotchy, flaky skin, courtesy of the autoimmune rash and dermatitis that has now spread over my face, chest, back, and upper arms, and which does not consistently respond to anything. The numerous unexplained small bruises I’ve been experiencing since I got sick. The white toes and purple feet and legs of Raynaud’s phenomenon. The two or three kilograms of bloating that can follow consumption of any dairy or grains and make my clothes immediately ill-fitting and awkward. My hunched, limping gait on days when I am stiff and sore but not bad enough for a walking aid. My need for appropriate (and usually un-fancy) footwear to negotiate walking and stairs when I can’t feel my leg.
Then there are the physical indicators courtesy of pain and pain medication that I fear get read as ‘junkie’; shaking, sweating, a face full of pimples, scratching at my ever-itchy nose, and dilated pupils, accompanied by rushed speech and trouble concentrating.
Pain and sickness are ugly on me. I hate that people who don’t know I’m sick might interpret these things as laziness, or a lack of awareness. I hate that it takes me twice as long to look half as decent. I hate the expensive and often ineffectual hunt for beauty products I can use without disrupting the ever-so-delicate ecosystem of my body, and that the products I do find often don’t work as well. I hate that this illness is stealing what should be my ‘pretty years’, when I’m at a good weight for me, and I’ve grown out of youthful awkwardness, and society still wants to look at me. I hate that the social phobia I conquered as a teenager is re-emerging, based on all these fears and insecurities. I hate that it’s vain and self-absorbed to talk about these things, even in the midst of a society that teaches women that their value is based on their appearance.
Most days, I can get over these things. I can square my shoulders and head out feeling ugly and self-conscious. But today I can’t, and that’s okay. I’ll try again tomorrow.