Letting People be Sick

I found myself contemplating some people I know recently. Some I have direct relationships with, others are friends and family of my friends. A thought occurred to me as I thought about some of what these people deal with that I wanted to attempt to detail in writing, so here it goes.

Let me tell you a story. A story about someone you know, a coworker, maybe even a family member.

They just told you they have cancer, and they want your help in keeping that information private. So you put together a plan. No matter how bad the cancer gets, she will always show up for work every morning as if nothing is wrong. She will not take any medication where the side effects would be identifiable. (Nothing that makes it impossible to drive, for instance.). Radiation treatment is right out, can’t have her losing her hair and giving away what’s happening after all. Even as the cancer spreads, and she struggles to do anything without pain, no one will talk about what is happening right in front of their eyes. You will refuse to acknowledge that there’s anything different at all, no matter how many people ask.

Mostly, you won’t ask anyone to help her, or make any accommodation for her at work, at home, anywhere. You will lie instead, no matter what. Doctor’s appointment will have to be scheduled around the rest of her life, and god forbid you ever seek out any support for watching someone you care about struggle like this, lest people find out what is happening.

Would you agree to do this? Would anyone in their right mind expect this to be the way they act when they have a serious illness? Of course not.

We would expect them to need time off work, maybe even a leave of absence. We’d expect them to get whatever treatment they could, and get assistance with the effects of those treatments. We would understand when they didn’t make social events, and we’d fully expect their family and loved ones to reach out for support as needed, no questions asked.

Why then, when it comes to serious mental health issues, addiction, ED, PTSD, etc. do we expect people to continue on with their lives and keep this secret? Wouldn’t it be a whole lot better if we let them “be sick”, so they could focus on getting better, regardless of whether that means people will know? Why wouldn’t we rather the people who truly care and support us know about it?

Is it because we’re afraid of what they think? I’ve got news for you, if they think anything other than “how can I help?”, they were never really the people who cared about you anyway.

Being sick involves doing something different temporarily so that you can heal. That could be resting, taking medication, taking time from work, or even surgery or a hospital stay. Being sick mentally is no different, and until we can acknowledge that, and give people the freedom to heal and recover without stigma, we will lose far too many.

We are losing too many.

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