Do you suffer from Illness Guilt?
If you have it, you know it. How do you recognize it? Well, it goes something like this:
The alarm goes off, but I don't hear it. I wake up late.
My eyes won't open. I pull up an eyelid, but it shuts again.
Sighing, I drag myself to the bathroom to get ready for the day. I can't brush my hair because my arm won't stay up. My head hurts, and my muscles ache. So far, I'm not having a great morning.
Perhaps, I need five more minutes of sleep, I tell myself. With dragging feet, I return to bed. I ask Siri to set the timer for five minutes.
An hour later, I wake up in shock. I slept through the timer going off! I'm still so tired I can't seem to wake up completely.
"Am I sick?" I ask myself. I run through the I'm Sick Requirements to see if I meet either of them:
- Do I have a fever of 104 degrees or more? "Nope, I don't think I do. I wish I did; then I wouldn't have to wonder if I'm sick. It would also explain my exhaustion."
- Am I throwing up? Do I feel like I might throw up? "No, to both questions." The results aren't looking too good for me.
I failed the I'm Sick Requirements, which means I Am Lazy. Oh no! I hate it when I'm Lazy. I feel so guilty!
"OK, don't panic," I say out loud. "What if I have a bug that doesn't involve a high fever or throwing up. It's possible, isn't it?" Wincing, I know that even if I do have a bug, it doesn't have the symptoms that fit the I'm Sick Requirements. If it doesn't meet the requirements, then that means I'm Lazy. Looking at my watch, I say to myself, "I sure don't think I can get up. I feel so bad...but that's what Lazy usually feels like to me. Ugh!"
Here comes Guilty Me, I can feel it.
I start to panic. Maybe my husband will come in and tell me I'm sick. That would work. Guilty Me won't show up and badger me for being lazy if he says I'm sick. I begin assessing my predicament. I usually get up in the morning, don't I? Of course, I do, I remind myself. Think about it - you typically have coffee, get your Mac, and start working. Remember?? Yes, I remember, but I'm not convinced that I'm not being Lazy Me.
I open my eyes and gasp, "Oh crap, I fell asleep again!" Twenty minutes have passed, and now it's even later. I still feel awful. "Being Lazy sucks," I mutter to myself.
Guilty Me arrives in full force. Negotiations between Lazy Me and Guilty Me begin.
"Maybe I am sick," says Lazy Me. "Simply because I don't know how I got sick or what it is, doesn't mean I'm not sick."
"I'll make a deal with you," replies Guilty Me. "You can pretend you're sick, but you need to be as productive as you are when you are not Lazy."
Lazy Me considers this. "I think I can be productive while I'm down. I have several things I can do to make up for the fact that I'm in bed. Let's see... I can write the grocery list. That will make us way more productive when we shop for groceries. It could save us forty-five minutes of wandering around the store, trying to figure out what to get."
"I can return phone calls! I hate talking on the phone, so it'll be a good punishment for being lazy," says Lazy Me.
"I know!" Lazy Me cries with excitement. "I can spend 8 hours catching up on work that I can do while in bed. I'll get my Mac and work while I'm being this Lazy! That should balance everything out!"
Guilty Me ponders Lazy Me's ideas that sound more like schemes to Guilty Me. But, Lazy Me does have a point. The activities should generate valuable productivity, Guilty Me thinks. They will create the balance needed. It's so important to have balance in life.
"Alright," Guilty Me says. "We can call this a sick day, a mental health day, or whatever you want to call it. I still think it's Lazy. "I'll go along with this idea, but you have to promise you will follow through with your productivity plan for today."
"Oh, I will! I promise," responds Lazy Me. "It'll be fine. I'll accomplish a lot."
Equipped with my iPad, iPhone, and Mac, I begin researching a project on which I'm working. I find some excellent information in a few YouTube videos. Some documentaries I run across look pretty compelling. I make a mental note to come back to them after I finish researching.
Six hours later, I find that even with all Lazy Me's good intentions, my eyes haven't stayed open the whole time. I've been drifting in and out of sleep while YouTube documentaries play. I hate when laziness takes everything out of me. I have accomplished nothing at all today.
Guilty Me has been waiting for just this moment. "See, I knew you wouldn't be productive if you laid in bed all day, being Lazy!" Guilty Me continued, "What are you going to do now? You still don't meet the I'm Sick Requirements, so you can't use being sick as an excuse. All that's left with is being Lazy. What an awful situation."
Suddenly, the bedroom door opens, and my husband stands in the doorway. "You're awake," he smiles. "I've been checking on you, but you've been out most of the day. I figured you must not be feeling well since you stayed in bed today." He went on, "Sleep is the best thing for you. If you keep pushing yourself, you'll end up making yourself sicker, and you'll be down even longer."
Lazy Me and Guilty Me both gulped, wide-eyed.
"Huh? I'm sick?" I asked. "Are you sure I'm sick and not lazy?"
Shaking his head, he said. "What a ridiculous question. Of course, I'm sure you're sick."
“What if I’m faking being sick, and I fooled you?” I countered.
"Nope. You don't fool me, because you aren't faking a sick day." He responded patiently. "Come on, give yourself a break. You never fake being sick."
Guilty Me glances over at Lazy Me, but Lazy Me disappeared.
"Thanks for checking in on me," I say to my husband. "I've been sleeping a lot today. It wasn't a total waste. I did find some great YouTube documentaries that are perfect for watching on a sick day."
You might think this is just a silly story. It is ridiculous, but it's not just an anecdote. The scenario above paints a picture of what it's like for me when I come down with any illness that keeps me in bed. It's not logical, but it happens anyway.
I’m sure you noticed that both Guilty Me and Lazy Me are striving to find balance. Both think that enough productive work time will make up for (or balance) the time spent in bed. This concept has nothing to do with balance, and everything to do with imbalance.
Read what the CDC has to say about Staying Home When You're Sick.
The Bottom Line
Let me point out a few things that are associated with balance:
When my body acts sick, I am sick. It tells me I am out of balance. I must believe my body’s warnings.
Ignoring pain or other symptoms of illness doesn't mean I'm dedicated to my work, ultra-responsible, or even heroic. Ignoring my pain or illness makes me irresponsible to myself. It's invalidating. I don't need to second guess what is so apparent.
I tried to muscle through what eventually turned out to be stage III uterine cancer. I excused my blood red eye to my ophthalmologist. I thought it was annoying, but not a big deal. He diagnosed me with the worst case of uveitis of which he'd ever seen or heard. He sent me immediately to Vanderbilt Eye Institute so I wouldn't lose my eyesight in that eye. Eventually, my diagnosis named my problem Ankylosing Spondylitis, which is a severely debilitating disease that brings with it a plethora of symptoms. I am always telling myself that what I feel is real. I'm not lazy, nor am I faking it when I acknowledge that I am affected by this chronic disease.
To maintain balance, I absolutely must treat my physical self with respect and care, no matter how many people in my life voice contradicting opinions.
Denying my physical reality is a learned behavior. Gritting my teeth and performing as though nothing is wrong is the epitome of wrong. Thinking there are only two requirements to meet to enable me to consider myself physically sick is so wrong. This mindset learned. We aren't born this way.
Maintaining balance means maintaining my physical health, as well as everything else that goes along with being a responsible adult.
If I have to meet those two requirements that define sickness to allow myself to be sick, I will end up in a health nightmare. I must believe what my body is saying to me. I no longer have the option of ignoring my body’s warnings.
Do as I say and not as I’ve done. If I hear or see someone behaving in a way similar to the behavior in the story above, I urge them to trust their body’s messages and take care of themselves. I have experienced the consequences of my own “stoic” behavior; behavior that was held in esteem by one of my parents.
I do not hesitate to affirm another person's reality. Acknowledging our physical realities is part of maintaining holistic balance. Ignoring our bodies destroys our attempted balance.
I don’t know how many people suffer from Illness Guilt. I personally know one other for sure. I'm inviting her to share her story. Watch for the post Illness Guilt: Another Perspective for more on this devious mindset.
If you would like to share your experience with Illness Guilt, email firstname.lastname@example.org, we may ask you to be one of our content contributors.