The hate stems from jealousy. “How come everyone else gets to have a normal body when mine is so stupid and broken? How come they get that and I don’t?” you say inside, because most of us, deep-down, still have in us a bit of the pouty nine-year-old who couldn’t get over how Jessica’s parents let her have roll-ups in her lunch and you had to have an apple that you threw in the bin every day anyway. That green-eyed little brat comes out when we see everyone we know, everyone in the the whole freaking world it seems sometimes, sailing through life, enjoying their bodies instead of fighting them.
But, as you get older (or, at least, as I got older), it starts to dawn that, actually, pretty much everyone has health problems they’re battling with. Whether they’re truly life-altering or just a bit annoying, basically every person on this earth above the age of about 25 has something wrong with them.
There’s the friend whose back is so bad she can’t ever consider a house with stairs and has to wheel her work handbag around because carrying it gives her terrible pain. Before she told me, three years into knowing her, I never really knew her back was that bad. She’s only in her mid-thirties, and she’s forced to make decisions on where she lives and how she gets around in the same way a little old lady would.
Then there’s the friend with irritable bowel syndrome who got sent home from the office because she was doubled over in pain, nauseous and pale, unable to work, unable to think.
They’re just two of many, many examples. I have friends and family and workmates with endometriosis, anal cysts, asthma, knees with no meniscus or plastic bits, necks so bad they seize up and have to be slammed into submission by a physio before the person can think about sitting at a desk to do their job. People with metal plates in their wrists and arthritis in their fingers. People with depression so debilitating they can’t get out of bed, can’t work; people who dread panic attacks that feel like heart attacks.
Me? I have an inflammatory bowel disease called Crohn’s disease, and I’m in the toilet anywhere from six to 15 times a day, sometimes the feeling coming on so urgently that I have to literally drop everything and scuttle top speed, everything clenched, to the nearest toilet. Everyone is different and like many chronic, lifelong conditions, with Crohn’s disease the severity, and often the range of symptoms, is different for everyone who has it. On my personal Crohn’s disease scale the current situation is pretty bad and has been for the past year, but there are many people who have a flare-up and need hospitalisation and parts of their bowel removed. Me, I’m still working, still socialising, still carrying on a ‘normal’ life in between shatteringly violent toilet visits.
And that’s one of the hardest parts of having a chronic condition. Much of the sickness in our society isn’t in hospitalisation, sudden accidents or needing two months off. It’s waking up every day and dragging your sorry-arse, malfunctioning wreck of a body through work, parenting, grandparenting, parties, exercising, cooking, doing the washing, cleaning the bathroom, buying birthday presents, paying the credit card and renovating. It’s looking at a poorly designed chair at a wedding and thinking ‘If the speeches are any more than 10 minutes long I’m going to need two hefty groomsmen and a hoist of some kind to get me out of that when my back seizes up’.
It’s going to the toilet ‘just in case’ before your one-hour commute and living in sweaty fear of ever needing to go when you’re only halfway through the trip.
It’s the daily morning microwave of your shoulder wheat-bag daily in the work kitchen while you make your first coffee, hoping it will just take the edge off enough to let you make through to 5.30pm.
It’s limping to the bathroom in the morning, your feet and legs as sore and sensitive as if you’d been walking for the past eight hours, not sleeping.
It’s spontaneous running—after a child; from a partner after barrelling up to them, slapping them on the bum and hollering “YOU’RE IT!”; after a dog that’s slipped the leash—followed by shooting pains and a wave of sadness. Because chronic conditions eat spontaneity for breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, brunch, lunch, afternoon tea, dinner and supper.
Can I make it through that two-hour bike ride with my friends without explosive diarrhoea? Can I stroll this beautiful river path on this unseasonably balmy night with my one true love while not wearing my orthotics in my fancy going-out-to-dinner shoes that I hadn’t planned on walking more than 20 steps in? Can I spend the night at my friend’s place after a few too many drinkies/illicit substances without the props of my pills/injections/special orthopaedic pillow?
Chronic conditions involve planning. If you want to survive the sit-down wedding reception, you bring your back cushion and your strong painkillers. If you want to complete the cycle, you plan the time exactly and carefully choose a route with public toilets. Or you just don’t go, and you spend the time instead watching Netflix, safely on your own couch where your condition can’t hurt you, bitterly jealous of the beautiful people on-screen whose only problems—apart from bad guys who look suspiciously like Dr Who—are that they’re too scared to tell their crime-solving partner that they’re in love with them, even though it’s clear the partner loves them back and they should just bang already. No one on those shows ever has bad knees or even goes to the toilet, except to randomly splash their faces with water when something bad happens (is splashing your face with water a movie euphemism for taking an adrenalin-induced poo? I’ve always wondered. In real life, very few women randomly splash their faces with water if they must then appear in front of other people again moments later, because they applied makeup for a reason and like it where it is, not sliding greasily down their faces.)
Along with careful planning, chronic conditions also involve a lot of subterfuge, misdirection and unsaid things. There is a lot of iceberg under the surface of the standard ‘Good’ answer to the inevitable ‘How are you?’. No, I’m not good, we want to say. We want to say “My knees are so bad I eat Panadene Forte for breakfast” or “I can’t figure out what is triggering my irritable bowel syndrome, so I’m considering just consuming iceberg lettuce and water for the rest of my life— while sitting on the toilet, to cut out the commute”.
We think no one wants to hear our health problems, and it’s true, many people truly don’t. The details of our bowel movements may not be the right answer to a barista’s chirped greeting or a senior manager’s awkward enquiry in the lift. Yet, there are people in your life who you can tell. Someday, someone will ask “How are you?”, and you’ll know that you have to tell them. I mean actually tell them, even if it’s just to help them peer through a thin crack in your protective wall. And you’ll be surprised, because they will actually care. They won’t be embarrassed, or change the subject. Their eyes will widen and will really focus on you, intent like they weren’t a moment ago when they expected a bland, set answer, and they will ask questions and make sympathetic noises. And you will feel a little bit heavier, because you’re admitting the reality of the whole blasted mess to yourself, but you will also feel a little bit lighter too, because now there’s one more person you won’t have to whitewash everything for.
Often they’ll share something about their health too, something you didn’t know, about a part of them that’s broken as well. You’ll see the invisible weight they carry, one you didn’t realise they were lugging around, hiding under a blanket of “I’m good thanks, and you?”. Just like you were.
And next time you see each other and you both say ‘Fine’, you won’t take each other at your word, but you’ll share a moment of understanding. Because you’re never fine, but maybe you’re now a little bit better.