You are Too Young to Be That Sick! Chronic Illness & Young Adults
At the age of twenty-four, a thousand miles away from my family, living in a new city, I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Over a period of four weeks and about eight doctor’s visits, I finally found a physician who listened to me explain my symptoms and in less than two days I had a diagnosis.
Despite the terms “chronic” and “forever” I felt relieved to know the label that described my chronic pain. Few of my friends, however, shared my enthusiasm for a diagnosis. The managers at my office were more concerned about the fact that I wasn’t wearing heels to work anymore, making me look less professional.
“Encouragement” was quickly tossed around, like “You’re too young to feel so badly!” Rheumatoid arthritis was only something that could be related to the aches and pains their grandparents suffered from and a hot water bottle made it go away. They’d laugh and say, “You can’t have arthritis yet!” Those who attempted to sympathize, compared my weary body to a sports injury they had. “I have a touch of arthritis on my knee cap from football in college. It’s not fun when the rain comes, but you just have to keep pushing and not think about it.” Even well-intentioned words were enhanced by the brush off of a hand or even rolling eyes.
When you are faced with a chronic illness in your twenties, all of the typical decisions you should be making are quickly put on hold. Up until now, you were considering what kind of education to pursue, your career aspirations, relationships, and even where you will live. All these are put aside, however, as you are forced to make immediate decisions that impact the rest of your life.
Things like how well you accept (or do not) accept the diagnosis of your condition, which medications to try, when side effects are worth the risk and when they are not, and how to find the right physician. While friends are deciding which party to go to we’re at home trying to make sense out of our latest lab test results, weighing our options for alternative treatments, and deciding to have a good cry or just go to bed and hold back the tears one more night.
I tried to make each decision based on thorough research, a bit of instinct, and “worse case scenario” situations. So when I heard someone facetiously say, “You’re too young to have that illness” it felt like a slap in the face; as if they assumed I was too gullible to fight the doctor’s diagnosis and get “right one” that could be cured with a simple pill. I had to be incorrectly diagnosed, they assumed, because, after all, I “looked so good.”
Laurie Edwards, author of ‘Life Disrupted: Getting Real About Chronic Illness in Your Twenties and Thirties,’ says, “However infuriating and irrational such comments are, they only have the power to define or validate our conditions if we allow that to happen. There are all sorts of reasons why people find it easy to scorn or deny illness, especially in younger people who ‘should’ look and act healthy.”
The ambush of advertising for prescription medicines has given the general public a small education on the fact that illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia are legitimate diseases. However, with this education, comes the feeling that everyone is an expert and their assumptions about various diseases are now based on what one sees in those same commercials. For example, people with disabling illnesses can somehow be miraculously playing tennis or doing a marathon. While it’s true that a very small percentage of people may go into remission, or those just diagnosed may have favorable results, most of us are happy if we can get out of bed, get dressed and drive a car. These commercials neglect to inform people that though an illness can be controlled somewhat, the person may still be in significant daily pain.
With each chronic illness, most of which are invisible, people will doubt that your illnesses impacts your life as significantly as it does. If you are in your twenties or thirties, they will be even less likely to understand that feeling better requires much more than a good attitude or a little bit of exercise.
Lisa Copen is the founder of Rest Ministries and National Invisible Chronic illness Awareness Week, as well as the author of Why Can’t I Make People Understand? Chronic illness doesn’t have to be depressing! Subscribe to receive daily emailed encouragement from the largest Christian outreach for people with illness. Don’t miss Rest Ministries great books and gifts we’ve selected for people coping with illness.
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