Illness and the magic thing

It’s important to talk about mental illness. Only by talking about it will we challenge the stigma, get rid of the inaccurate myths, challenge assumptions and improve things for everyone.

One of the big problems with mental health is that we treat it as an individual issue, with little or no reference to how context impacts on wellbeing. One very significant aspect of context is the way in which other people react. I’m conscious that many of the same things hold true for chronic illness. Certain kinds of responses silence people who are suffering, make it harder for us to ask for help, and can increase distress, anxiety and alienation. How people react to illness can make ill people more ill.

The big one (I think) is the idea that if we only tried harder and/or did ‘the magic thing’ we’d be fine. What ‘the magic thing’ is varies, but it will be something the person we’re dealing with is sure is a fabulous fix for everything. We’re told we should be on medication, or shouldn’t be on medication. We should make more effort, or get more rest. We should stop eating a thing, or start eating a thing, or do yoga, or practice mindfulness…

The person who says ‘I’m really struggling right now’ is not helped by being told they need the magic thing to fix them. Not least because we’ve all tried a whole array of alleged magic things already, and they mostly don’t save us. When you’re down, and beaten and exhausted and everything is hard about the least useful thing to hear is that you should be making more of an effort with something. Fear of dealing with this silences people, encountering it can kick those who are already down.

The motives for how we respond to illness in others stand questioning. If we make a suggestion to someone else, we may feel that’s us off the hook. We did our bit. We have no further responsibility. We may believe that because we are well, that something we are doing is the reason for this, and not that it might just be luck. Belief in ‘the magic thing’ protects us from having to be afraid that we could be unlucky and get sick. It may also allow us to feel superior, that our cleverly doing the right thing is keeping us well while others fall and suffer because they aren’t making as much effort as we are. Being blamed for illness adds to depression, despair, and a sense of alienation.

There is a balance to find here, because information sharing is a good and often helpful thing, but unsolicited medical advice from strangers is often demoralising. The thing to watch for is the tone. Sharing in solidarity – here’s the thing I tried, this is what happened – can be really helpful. ‘You should do this’ has a very different tone. There’s a power imbalance in it, a disrespect for the person on the receiving end. An implied superiority on the part of the person dishing out advice.

Another way of silencing, dismissing and injuring people who are ill is to tell them off for it. People who are told that expressions of distress are basically attention seeking and not ok learn not to mention it. You’re just making a fuss. You just want to be the centre of attention. You’re playing the victim again. You’re such a martyr… Which begs the question of why a person who is suffering should not be able to say so? The answer is all about the discomfort of the listener being more important than the distress of the person who is distressed. When you are deep in depression or other illness, and the distress caused by saying so is deemed more important than what you’re going through – that really doesn’t help. It’s a massive blow to self-esteem.

Depression and anxiety are at epidemic levels right now. We won’t change that without changing the context in which people are experiencing things.


About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings. Exploring life as a Pagan, seeking good and meaningful ways to be, struggling with mental health issues and worried about many things. View all posts by Nimue Brown

9 responses to “Illness and the magic thing

  • druidcat

    I think this applies to a lot of perceived ‘illness’ right now – including disability. We fear it, so we avoid it. We don’t like to sit with those who are physically or mentally ill, because it’s uncomfortable or messy. It challenges, hard.

    Education is needed. Young people are more aware than ever. We need to engage, speak, listen and learn, with respect and not judgement.

  • Robin

    in the past I have worked with people with ‘disabilities’ living in an environment that allowed them to be who are and gave them a healthy sense of their own value and worth, as well as providing with a meaningful worldview (even though it was essentially a Christian one) all of this they would have struggled to have found living outside where if you don’t fit into a narrow category of economic usefulness, exhibit very eccentric behaviour, are unable to be in certain environments or do particular things because it will send you into acute distress, then you are shunted into the margins of society out of view…… this idea that we exist to be efficient work machines that cannot be imperfect or messy lest we slow down the mad system is horrible and wrong, and viewing illness as something needing ‘correction’ shows how much we have lost the human in the inhuman logic of a world concieved as a capitalist machine. Indeed I feel the whole of humankind is ill at the moment suffering from the sickness of having to live in a life denying worldview, that we have been coerced into accepting over generations. I think we could recover but the magic thing here would be to stop listening to a system that wants us to be convenient, efficient and disposable little workers.

  • hejyork

    Oh my, this resonates so so strongly, both for my own experiences of mental health and chronic illness. I’ve internalised the messages so strongly that I doubt my own pain. And I’ve been victim to NHS trends (exercise for mental health, the cbt quick fix concept and the current fix all of mindfulness). There is power in sharing experiences and what worked for you, that’s how we start to see a way out. But it has to be a menu of many possibilities and I strongly believe that we have to find our own way into something for it to be sustainable. I do art, it’s therapeutic for me but if someone had tried to tell me art therapy was the fix a few years ago I would have been resistant

  • Christopher Blackwell

    I consider my being bi-polar no different than being diabetic. I am fortunate to have good medication for both and both are mostly under control. Not everyone is that fortunate. But I was in my mid-forties before I was even diagnosed, so I remember well what it was like out of control on an emotional roller coaster. Some never find a working medication, and some have to have several to do the job and handle the side effects of some of of the other medication. Some are never diagnosed, never treated and suffer as a result, and create suffering through no fault of their own. But before anything can be done for, or about, a problem, it has to be something people can talk about. What can’t be spoken of, cannot be dealt with

  • Tracy Kruse

    I agree that education is needed, as well as a new model of ‘health’ and new definitions of what wellness means. There is this odd concept of how everyone else is functioning as unified and it is so rarely true. Emanations of illness occur in spiritual, mental, emotional and physical arenas (or a combination) and society as a whole is totally lacking in understanding these levels, much less intricacies within the levels. And yes, ignoring the ill has become a full time thing, so much so that even those we are in relationship with will become frustrated and angry, especially if we are acting in a non-normal-for-us way and they see it as an inconvenience. And yes, the sufferer continues to suffer; there is no magic pill and no, even if you have control of my food intake is not a guarantee that I will lose weight. Healing is as much a transformation on many levels as any one.

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