Privilege. Whether in political, racial, or economic terms, you’ve likely heard the word come up quite often lately. However, the term ‘healthy privilege’ was a brand new one on me until I happened across it on Twitter.
It was brought to my attention by blogger and fellow autism spectrum girl, IsaJennie. As soon as I saw her post, a light bulb went off in my head, and I knew I had to write about this.
Not only do completely healthy people who have no experience with chronic illness make well-meaning but counterproductive suggestions, other people who live with chronic illness do this to each other all the time!
And, you know what I discovered? I’m ‘that person’, too! (Yikes!)
Example 1 – The Vegetable Juicing Cure-All
What you say:
“Organic vegetable juicing will cure (insert condition here)!”
What someone with chronic illness hears:
“All you have to do to get rid of your horrible pain is buy this $400 juicer, figure out how to set it up amidst waves of brain fog and crippling joint pain, drive over an hour to pick up organic vegetables at the only store in town that sells them, drive back, take half an hour to pulverize all your ingredients, and drink your juice. Do this three times a day, and you’ll be good as new!”
A Dose of Reality:
Organic vegetable juicing is a great way to beat inflammation and reduce the symptoms of chronic pain.
But here’s where the ‘healthy privilege’ part comes in:
- Juicers and organic vegetables are expensive.
- Not every town or city has organic fruits and vegetables readily available.
- It takes time, energy, and effort to juice on a daily basis, and most people living with chronic illness just don’t have the spoons to spare.
Since I don’t have children, I can’t say whether this is an accurate enough comparison, but I liken this blissful forgetfulness of what it’s like to live with never-ending pain, brain fog, and mood swings to having a baby.
Yes, you’re in agony when you’re in labor and delivery, but as soon as you see your newborn’s adorable face, you forget about it all. When a new mother-to-be asks you what it’s like, you downplay the pain by at least half.
I think it’s like that when you start to feel healthier after years of being sick. You forget all the true horror (because your brain is designed to protect you from trauma), and start to tell people, “Oh, just do this and that, and you’ll be fine.”
You no longer remember the first time you heard the same advice and looked up from the bottom of a mountain that you couldn’t even see the top of and thought, “You’re kidding, right?”
Example 2 – The Gluten-Free Guru
What you say:
“If you follow a gluten-free diet, all of your health problems will be over!”
What it sounds like to someone with chronic illness:
“All you have to do to get rid of the gut-wrenching stomach pain and horrible diarrhea you experience on a daily basis is learn another language and pay triple the amount you’re paying for groceries now!
Just spend an hour or two each shopping trip searching the small-print ingredients list on every piece of food you pick up to make sure it’s safe to eat and hope the store’s blinding fluorescent lights don’t bring on a migraine!”
A Dose of Reality:
A gluten-free diet literally saved my life. Without it, I don’t think I’d be here today, or, at the very least, I wouldn’t be who I am today. Yes, a completely gluten-free diet can do wonders for reversing chronic pain and brain fog, as well as neurological and emotional health problems.
- Gluten-free food is expensive.
- Not every town or city has gluten-free food readily available.
- It takes time to learn which foods are gluten-free and which aren’t and which gluten-free foods are actually healthy. Not to mention all the energy and effort it takes to prepare those meals every day!
When I first started a gluten-free diet, it was in 2002, and I had to buy the bulk of my food online. Nothing in the grocery store was labeled gluten-free.
I actually had to memorize a list of dozens of ingredients that meant the food contained gluten, and I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally poisoned myself before I got it right.
Still, 15 years later, I am sometimes too quick to point out how “easy” going gluten-free is. There’s that blissful forgetfulness again.
A Few More ‘Healthy Privilege’ Statements to Avoid:
“You need to get out and exercise more!”
Yes. A person who is in horrible pain who can barely get out of bed should promptly go for a run. Makes perfect sense. Not.
“These high-end supplements will solve all your problems!”
You’re living on one income and desperately waiting for your disability checks to start coming in. You don’t even know how you’re going to put food on the table this week, but if you spend $49.95 on a bottle of supplements, you’ll be healthy again. Not so much.
“There’s this amazing new gadget that zaps your pain away as you sleep!”
Said gadget only costs $1,500. Um…no thanks. I have a mortgage.
Things to Consider Before Offering Unsolicited Advice
Here’s what Jennie from Twitter had to say:
What does the term ‘healthy privilege’ mean to you?
“It’s the counterpoint to someone living with chronic illness, realizing that when you don’t deal with illness, you have privilege on that axis. It’s separate from disability because it’s possible to be disabled and healthy.”
She goes on to explain that it can be easy to assume that the sick person you’re encountering faces only the limitations that you face. No more. No less.
In other words, when encountering another person with chronic illness, it’s important to meet them where they are, not where you are.
Jennie also explains that there are other important factors to take into consideration.
“How frequently do you go to the doctor–yearly physical or constant trips? How often are you flaring or sick? Are you immunocompromised? Do you take daily medication–how much? What are your medical bills like? Do you have dietary restrictions? Multiple health conditions? Do you measure your day in spoons? Is your life expectancy shortened?”
Because every single person is different, she explains, it’s never an “all-or-nothing situation”.
I agree 100 percent. The next time you have an opportunity to advise someone with a chronic illness, take a few moments to think about how the message might be received.
The person may appreciate your intentions, but your advice could backfire on them if they do not have the amount of time, money, or strength that you do.
It’s the kind of thing that can make someone who is already struggling feel guilty that they cannot accomplish what you have accomplished.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Albert Einstein (Attributed)
Where have you encountered ‘healthy privilege’? Share in the comments below!
About Jennie: Jennie volunteers with a crisis intervention service. She crafts, creates, writes, bakes, reads, blogs, and hangs out with her spoonie (diabetic) unofficial service cat, Gumby.
Photo of young man courtesy of Flickr.com/Mitchell Joyce