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Stop Sugar Coating Sickness!

How Toxic Positivity Is Damaging the Chronically Ill.

Christine Manneh

As a society we are obsessed with putting a positive spin on everything in a way that dismisses and denies our authentic emotional experience, this blatantly shows our culture's discomfort with emotion. I suffer from a few, cureless, long term chronic illnesses- there’s nothing positive about that, quite the opposite. Unfortunately, toxic positivity is something people with chronic illness know too well. On the surface it sounds positive, reassuring, helpful, but when you pay attention and think about if it’s useful to say to a chronically ill person, you’ll find it's not. Having a disability is a big part of who we are. Encouraging people to distance themselves from is highly dismissive.

When you compliment a disabled person for “never complaining” during their illnesses you reinforce the narrative that the strongest suffer in silence. You are not considering what the sick persons needs when you compliment them for never complaining about their illness. Instead, you are focusing on the comfort and feelings of the people around the disabled person. This is extremely toxic and harmful because it makes disabled people feel guilty for needing others help. It makes them feel like a burden for being sick. Narratives like these scare disabled people into silence. For some people, the severity of their illnesses continuously imposes a devastating impact on their entire lives, and nothing will change it, not even well wishes, will power, toxic positivity, or hard work. You are not weak if you voice your needs and pain, suffering in silence is not the epitome of strength. Societies discomfort towards chronically ill people’s reality is not our burden to bear!

For many people, including me, their illness has stopped their life in its tracks, held them back, taken their dreams and ambitions, taken their independence & freedom away, and a lot more. Growing up it was my dream to be a pilot. I collected plane models and everything in my life was aviation related from my clothing to my toys. Unfortunately, in my adolescence I got sick, and the medical requirements are strict for pilots. The minute I got a diagnosis my passions and ambitions were stripped away from me. This brings me onto another type of toxic positivity I see often. However, this time it’s from people within the chronic illness community. A post I saw recently on Instagram from a chronic illness advocate said, “having a chronic illness doesn’t mean you have to stop your life” For me, seeing other chronically ill people claim that just because they have achieved certain things alongside their illnesses, others will be able to do the same, however that isn’t every chronically ill persons reality. There is no linear path to chronic illness, it manifests differently for each person. It is toxic to assume lack of willpower stops people from achieving their dreams because chronic illness can and does hold people back. Despite knowing there is no hope of improvement, accepting our illnesses can be extremely empowering.

Throughout my chronic illness journey, I have found it extremely difficult to answer questions like "how are you?" and "are you okay?". I’m typically reluctant to answer these types of questions. Sometimes, my reluctance is primarily based totally on a response I've had from the person before. However, narratives like “don’t let your illness define you” float around my mind and make me feel bad for speaking up, and in the past has stopped me from speaking up about my needs. It's hard feeling like you can't talk about what your life is really like. However, I realised that if I expressed the full extent of what I am going through, seeing as the answer is never as simple as “I’m good”, I would be less likely to push myself to do things I can’t, I’d be better at letting criticisms about my limitations pass me by, I’d be less likely to upset myself with “when I get better…” thoughts as it’s sugar coating my reality, and this isn’t me being negative- it’s being realistic.

If you take anything from this article, take this: speaking realistically about your illness doesn’t equal negativity. Even if your illness defines you, you're still enough. Even if your illness has held you back from achieving your dreams, you're still amazing. Even if your illness has stopped your life in its tracks, you're still incredible. Your illness might define your life, but you’re still more than enough. Accepting your illness is not giving up.


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