the slippery slope

Today’s news brought to mind issues of stigma, how revealed traits and social ties can help to knock it down, and the difficulties of being charged with that task.

The news item I’m referencing is the story that an apparently prominent U.S. republican senator has come out in favor of same sex marriage.  He attributes this break with this element of his party’s widely held and harshly wielded platform to the somewhat recent knowledge that one of his sons is gay.

“My son came to Jane, my wife, and I, told us that he was gay, and that it was not a choice, and that it’s just part of who he is, and that’s who he’d been that way for as long as he could remember,” said Portman.

What was the Republican senator’s reaction?
“Love. Support,” responded Portman.

From One conservative’s dramatic reversal on gay marriage, By Dana Bash, CNN Chief Congressional Correspondent, March 15, 2013.

This has sparked a debate among my friends on Facebook. Not about whether same sex marriage should be legal.  With the exceptions of a few inlaws hanging out in my “friends” list, I can say with certainty that 100% of (the rest of) my friends on FB are pro-gay marriage.  I do not FB friend indiscriminately.  Despite having been on FB for a long time, I have fewer than 100 friends and that number stays relatively stable.  The debate has been along the lines of “oh now that this guy has a son who is gay, he’s ok with gay.  Hypocrite!” vs. “when things affect us personally, our world view changes…”  I come down on the side of the latter, although I have to claim that I had the “hypocrite!” reaction too.  That was my initial reaction, soon followed by the recognition that it is through social interaction that humans develop a sense of “other” and it is through meaningful social interactions and positive connections that we develop a sense of acceptance for those “others”.

Part one:  Invisible chronic illness (ICI) comes with intense stigma.  Disease is stigmatized, but there is increasing tension if the illness is invisible, chronic, and if “the afflicted” is female.

If the trait is considered bad, then the person with it is considered bad.  That is my quick and sloppy definition of stigma, which holds for not so clearly “sinful” traits as well (see Part Two below).  So what’s the stigma of the ICI?  The stigma is twofold.  There is the “disease = bad” that all people with an illness or a disease-perceived disability deal with.  For those with a chronic illness, there is the added issue of their illness going against the collective disease narrative which people without a chronic illness have constructed for themselves (and everyone else).  You get sick.  You get better.  The end.  Chronic illness, chronic evolving illness, violates this and it challenges people.  And the common unexamined reaction to that challenge is to get pissed off.  Pissed off at yourself if you’re “the afflicted” for not being able to do what you used to be able to do, or for doing something that makes things worse because you try to do what you used to be able to do…etc.  Pissed off at your coworker, e.g., for taking so much time off this month.  And so on.  For a chronic, evolving illness which is invisible (or largely invisible), the stigma manifests in reactions which state or suggest that “the afflicted” is not afflicted with anything save a desire to cop out, get attention, get a break, complain, openly express feelings that we are supposed to lock up (disappointment, frustration, anger, fear, sorrow).  If you can’t see it or quantify it in a lab value, you can easily believe that the afflicted is looking for a pass on social requirements.  And this explains why women with ICI are so extra screwed.  The first woman most of us know is mom.  Mom is a special kind of saint.  Mom makes food for you from her body.  Mom changes your diaper when its full, relieving you of a set of what must be truly unpleasant sensations.  Mom picks up after you.  Oh I know, there are bad mommies out there but let’s use those exceptions to prove the practically universally held concept of MOM, which is one that starts and becomes fixed at a quite young age, when MOM exists to serve and love you.  Mom does NOT walk into the room and say “you know what kid?  change yourself!  I’m exhausted and can’t even stand up right now let alone deal with your diaper full of poop.”  When moms are shown doing or reported to have done anything other than being that serving MOM, there is undisguised public revilement (I say public because while people seem to feel a deep and rewarding compulsion to jump on the “bad mommy” bandwagon in public responses to abuse and neglect by a mother, few of them are willing to actually do things to make this abuse and neglect less likely to happen).  A woman is a potential MOM.  It is part of what defines her as a woman.  And a MOM who doesn’t make dinner, who needs help with the laundry, who doesn’t put the secondary social needs of her relations over her own physical well being, who doesn’t act/talk/look gracious and effortless in doing what she should properly do is a BAD MOMMY.  You put a woman with an ICI into any social context and you will very quickly see both internal and external struggles about power and efficacy all of them with the threat of being labeled as selfish (the cardinal sin of MOMs) lurking around every corner.

So many women I meet, virtually or in person, who have an ICI seem to have at least one significant source of unsupportive, stigma enforcing people in their lives.  Often, there’s at least one source per sphere.  Some at work, some at home, some friends, some at the doctors’ offices, some extended family.  I wonder sometimes, about myself, if the source is actually me.  Am I just projecting my internal struggles with feeling like I fall short of what I want to be and do onto others?  Yes.  I know I am.  But this doesn’t mean that there aren’t also people out there who are quick if not happy to also judge me negatively for displaying traits of an ICI.  The two feed on each other.  This is the slippery slope.  It doesn’t take much evidence of unsupport for me to get into a nasty cycle of feeling bad about me and feeling bad about others.

Part two:  I think support doesn’t come without love, and I wonder if you can have love without support.

I personally feel the answer is no.  I realize that this goes against what we are told, what is codified in the saying of “love the sinner, hate the sin”.  I am reflecting on ICI because it is my own personal experience but also because it shares the features of concealable and unchosen with sexual orientation, what kicked of this meandering.  Knowing and loving someone with an ICI bestows a better understanding of the experiences from perspectives ranging from first person (the observed “afflicted” beloved), to second person (the experiencing belover of the “afflicted”), and even to filtered third person (the doctors, the extended family, the coworkers of the “afflicted” beloved and belover).  That understanding extends beyond the immediate relationship and to others who are in similar contexts.  Consider the old friends I connected with around Christmas this year.  If you aren’t up for following the link to that post, the short version is I that despite disclosing, I experienced a relatively warm and supportive interaction with some friends who I hadn’t seen since before I was a person with an ICI.  I suspect a lot of this was due to the shortness of the interaction, but I felt some of it came from the fact that one of the more socially leading of this set of friends has a son who was born with a heart defect.  This was cause for a health crisis immediately after the son’s birth and has become an ICI now in the child’s older years.  And not to disparage my friends, but I suspect that lacking that experience, they would not have been as supportive and warm.  I strongly feel it is human nature to be cruel about things you don’t understand.  We are wired to judge quickly, even to prejudge, and to act on those judgments.  And from that wiring comes behavior we classify as bias and bigotry in otherwise “nice” people.*

I think that support comes from love, even if it is not for the exact person supported.  My friend can love his son who has an ICI, support his son who has an ICI, and extend some of that support to me.  And my husband can love me, support me, and extend that support to others with ICIs.    But what about the people who love someone with an ICI but do not support them?  Me, I’d argue that they don’t truly love.  Maybe they don’t truly love that person.  Or maybe they don’t truly love.  Maybe they have some predisposition to narcissism, some inherent limitation of empathy, too much resentment for anyone else who they think is “getting a break” while they are left to struggle with their own personal burdens.  All of these things are impediments to caring about anyone to the degree that you  care about yourself.

Part three:  You  cannot change minds if you don’t disclose but god damn, it sucks to be the one disclosing.

I have and still do try to deal with the stigma through concealment.  I try not to disclose or I am consumed by managing who I disclose what to.  This is because I used to be a much more open person.  I assumed others were as willing as I was to listen to other people.  I present as evidence my past belief that when people asked “how are you?” they really wanted to know.  I really wanted to know when I asked. I wouldn’t have asked if I hadn’t, or if I hadn’t had time.  Oh but the glazed looks on people’s faces finally sunk in.  Hey guess what?  For the most part, they don’t give a shit.  They are not asking a question.  They are making a salutation.  The two are not the same.  Amazing that it took me a degree in linguistics and nearly 30 years of life to figure this out.  Now I ask and answer this “question” with impunity.  “Great!”  or “not bad!”  I’m glad I figured this out before I got sick.  I do feel the tension when a coworker – who has been affected by a recent schedule change due to my ICI – asks me the next time they see me “how are you?” I do feel a twinge of “oh crap…do I play it cool and provide the socially acceptable but factually inaccurate answer which might, if they are thinking about it, make them wonder “well if you’re fucking ‘great’ today, why the hell weren’t you here yesterday afternoon?!” but at least I know I have a choice in how to answer.  More often than not, my answer in such a situation is a compromise between socially acceptable and factually accurate response, i.e. “alright, thanks…and you?”  It is one of the strategies of concealment which anyone with an ICI understands.  Concealment can work for a short time, for interactions limited by short duration or infrequent occurrences.  Over time there comes a point where even if I am working really hard to hide my ICI, it shows.  I might pass out.  I might have to take my shoes off or put my legs up because my blood is pooling in my feet and they feel like they are on fire.  I might not be able to walk as fast as my colleagues when we are leaving the office at the same time to attend a meeting nearly a mile’s walk from our building.  I might choose not to leave at the same time so I don’t have to worry about being seen to not keep up, which might make me seem to be anti-social.  I might have to leave work early for a doctors appointment, or come in late because I didn’t factor the hour lost to an unexpected vagal episode into my morning routine.  I might not be able to take a trip to California to see my inlaws.  I might have to cancel my vacation and answer questions at work about why I canceled it.

I have also tried to deal with the stigma through disclosure and trying to force acceptance on myself and others.  This, I am not so good at.  My use of the word “force” is not accidental.  I’d like to say “engender” but the reality is I have no idea how to do something so subtle.  I am largely graceless in my attempts to play the respectable sicky.  Some of this is just my nature, me pre-sick. I’m really much more of a “yeah that’s what it is, so what are you gonna do about it?” person when it comes to protecting the weak, which now includes me.  However, I have mellowed with time.  I have a few more tools in that toolbox.  But when it comes to me and my illness, that toolbox is waaaaaay out of reach on account of the piles of self recrimination, disappointment, frustration, and grief which I have surrounding my own feelings about me and my broken, bastard of a body.

Here’s what I do know though.  My husband loves me.  And he supports me.  He is now one more person, like my friend with the son with the heart defect, who will be an ambassador for people like me.  The more people I can get in my corner, the more people I can get in all our corners.  When I can, I will come out.  And when I can, I will build allies, even if they are only temporary.  It helps to feel like I am doing this for more than myself.

Ok, well I’m done for now.  Now, I’m off to shower up and then go for an upper endoscopy to find out why my body is playing this new trick of unending, intense nausea.  Here’s hoping there’s an addressable answer in my stomach and that it’s not just one more unmeasurable and therefore invalidated new fact of my life.

* it would be a gross oversimplification to misapply this to explain all bias and bigotry.  What I’m describing is the human tendency (and perhaps evolutionary necessity) to take cognitive short cuts which can lead to carelessly cruel behavior that is the sort of unintentional bigotry we all have experience with.  I do not think that this or this alone can account for intentional cruelty and abuse.

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2 Comments

  1. Oh, you brought up soooo many good points here. I should follow your numbering system to reply, but my eyes are too shot from hrs of prodding at the eye doc’s earlier. So, here it goes.

    I think the general theme is interacting with the “normies” and how that affects us, unless the ‘roid-induced headache is making me lose my train of thought. Well, vice versa as the “normie” senator had to face his gay son (this so reminds me of that line from Heathers: “I love my dead, gay son!”). I’m wondering about the inherent nature of people, which you mentioned. I’m thinking some people are empathetic by nature and some (most?) aren’t. It’s sort of why people go into certain professions, although I’ve seen lots of those types who really could care less, so who knows? I was always an empathetic person–or at least in my 20s and beyond. Still am! I’m surrounded by totally unsupportive people (not where I live–I just keep to myself here) and I’m so glad your brought up the “love = support” concept. I feel these people (like my entire family) do not love me (oh, boo hoo) as they are so unsupportive. I think they go hand-in-hand and screw those who can’t support you or just ignore you (the worst as this is my experience). To love is to support!

    Also appreciate you raising the point of what to “disclose.” The dilemma is if you put on the “smiley face,” then you’re not sick and fine. If you moan and groan, then you get screamed at and no one cares, either. Let me know when you figure this one out?! I just try to be asocial now, which is NOT my pre-illness self at all, but seems to work best. It sucks to not be able to have a normal conversation ever. So many other points I’m missing… Oh, the hypocrite argument. I’m saying hypocrite because of all the family/friends of gay people who cut them off completely. Well, maybe I contradicted myself since he didn’t do that. Perhaps it boils down to empathy again. Glad I didn’t major in freakin’ psychology!

    Oh, this makes me crazy: “You get sick. You get better. The end.” I love when I’ve gone back to Seattle and someone says, “You’re STILL sick??” Jackasses. They just don’t get it and I’ll go back to no empathy on that one.

    I also wonder how much culture (or American culture) comes into play here. This “getting better” thing seems so American. Just pull yourself up by your bootstraps! I find–from my expat experiences–that the 3rd world, which is chock-full of disease in general, is more accepting as it’s more “normal” to have some sort of affliction. Ex. If my cornea turns totally white (think it’ll be OK I hope), I wouldn’t be a total freak in Mexico, where I saw that a lot, but here you’d become a recluse or walk around w/a bag on your head. There you go…

    Great post, D! You beat my word count, unless my comment was longer. 🙂

    Reply
  2. You are right. It is just a salutation isn’t it? Why not just say “Hi”? Who know’s it is a hard one. You don’t want to lie be like “I feel greaaaat!” when you feel like ass. But yet you don’t want to give detail why you feel like ass, Because you know they could give a rats ass. So I have come up with the “I’m so-so. I have been better, and I have been worse. So say how are you? How are your kids, dogs, grand babies?” Get the heat off me. 🙂 Good post! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply

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