RA Diaries: Illness as punishment

Many years ago, I learned to fly an airplane.

It took me more than two years to get my license, partly because I kept running out of money, but mostly because I had to find the right instructor. As it turned out, it was the third one, and apart from the fact that she was a veteran CFI with an excellent record, she also had RA. Unlike me, she had gotten it in her 30s (she was in her 50s when she taught me). And unlike me, she’d taken the really strong stuff, including gold.

The gold (which I remember some doctors wanted to give me, but my grandfather, also a doctor, refused) turned her skin a permanent metallic orange. I know she was self-conscious about it, and that people, especially kids, had been unkind. But this woman was a fighter, and she was not afraid to flay miscreants with her very sharp tongue.

In spite of our shared health concerns, we didn’t talk a lot about RA. Rather, we focused on the business of flying. It came up at times, such as when she tried to give me a big bag of herbal supplements (after her bad gold experience, she had turned to holistic healing).

And then, there was the incident.

We were climbing out of the airport, headed for the practice area. We were going to do some high work that day — stalls, slow flight, some instrument work. Just after telling the control tower we were out of the airport’s airspace and on our own, she told me about an article she had just read in one of her healing magazines. According to the article, chronic illnesses such as RA happened to people who had a lot of anger. Apparently, this resonated with her, because she was very angry before she got ill.

But it didn’t resonate with me. I was barely in kindergarten when I got sick. And while I’m sure I had my bratty moments, excessive anger was not something I recall being a problem. In fact, my mother often said I was a very even-tempered, albeit strong-willed, baby.

When I brought this up with my instructor, she shrugged it off. Then, she told me that maybe it was something I had done in a previous life.

I know she was sort of joking, but that really pissed me off. If we hadn’t been in a tiny airplane 3,000 feet above the ocean, I would have gotten out and walked away. How dare she tell me getting RA was my fault? And how sad was it that she believed that her illness was the result of some character fault she had?

But unfortunately, her attitude is very common. In our need for answers as to why some of us get sick but some don’t, we try to stave off our fears about cancer and Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, not to mention auto-immune illnesses, or horrors such as smallpox or E-Bola, by somehow convincing ourselves that it won’t happen to us. And why not? Well, because obviously the people who got ill did something wrong, so it’s ALL THEIR FAULT, and they, in some measure, deserved it. Ergo, if we avoid doing such bad things, we will be safe.

I can see you shaking your head now. “I would never feel that way! I always empathize with cancer/multiple sclerosis/AIDS patients!” But are you sure? There is such a thing as embedded theology, also known as a prejudice so deeply buried in our psyches we don’t even know we subscribe to it.

“In mens sana, in corpore sano,” or sound body, sound mind, is a message we get every day, emphasized by religion, academia and the advertising industry. Because bad things only happen to bad people, right?

I’ll admit — I’ve done this myself. A close relative was diagnosed with severe emphysema a few years ago. This person was a heavy smoker, and when I was a child, had no compunction about making me sit in a smoky room, or car. If I coughed, that was considered an insult. I don’t wish to be a jerk, but when this person started to get sick, I felt slightly vindicated. At the same time, I felt awful that it had happened, and ashamed for feeling vindicated.

Back to my earlier point, I am not denying that our risk for illness increases with certain actions. Smoking can lead to emphysema and cancer. Drinking alcohol puts you at risk for cirrhosis and brain damage. Living a sedentary life and eating an unhealthy diet can lead to type II diabetes and heart problems.

But the hell of it is that sometimes, it doesn’t. Many smokers never get cancer. Many drinkers never get cirrhosis, and just because you assume someone is sedentary and eats badly because they are overweight, it doesn’t mean they are, and that they have diabetes or heart problems.

But it’s never okay for us to judge them harshly if they behave in this way and do get sick. And it’s never okay to come up with ridiculous reasons for why a five-year-old got RA, because that is the only way to make sense of such unfairness.

Yeah, I get it, the random nature of most illness is very frightening. But let me say this not just for the confused kindergartener I once was, but for everyone else: Getting sick is not a punishment for our sins, real or imagined.

I write this now, many years after that depressing and revelatory conversation with my CFI, because I’m seeing people with real power making harmful decisions based on that notion. The House’s attempt to defund Planned Parenthood is an example. Denying women reproductive care is tantamount to telling them that anything bad that happens to their sexual organs is their punishment. Got HPV which led to cervical cancer? Tough luck, you big slut! Got breast cancer because you never had children? Tough luck, you childless shrew! Got breast cancer for no particular reason? Maybe you were one of those angry feminazis!

This attitude includes pregnancy, by the way. Pregnancy may not be defined as an illness, but it sure has a lot of the same risks and symptoms. Forcing a woman to go through gestation and labor is her punishment for having sex. Never mind if it kills her. Never mind if she just doesn’t want to do it for her own very personal reasons. It’s all part of Eve’s curse, right on the first page of the Bible: “In sorrow thou shalt bring forth children.” (And that’s why it doesn’t surprise me that most of the Representatives who want to punish women by forcing them to go through with pregnancy are Judeo-Christian.)

The House’s approval of that Bill is just the latest manifestation. Last year, when Congress was fighting over health care reform, I heard many otherwise kind people complain about having to purchase health insurance. They were healthy, they grumbled, so why should they have to do this?

The subtler, and more upsetting message I heard was this: I’m not sick, so I did something right. If you’re sick, you did something wrong, and I shouldn’t have to pay for it.

But I shouldn’t get angry. I already have RA, but who knows what else I may incite with my anger?

All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.

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One comment

  • As someone dealing with a different type of chronic illness, I second your thoughts about “positive thinking”. Yes, it can be helpful to maintain a positive attitude, but it can also be a dangerous form of denial. When I’m feeling at my worst, it has helped for me to acknowledge it, and to use that awareness to pursue any possible changes that might make things slightly better – whether it’s speaking to my doctor about an alternative therapy, canceling plans so that I can get rest, etc.

    Blaming someone’s illness on something they did in a past life is just ridiculous. My illness is digestive in nature, and it irritates me to no end when people suggest that something I was eating or drinking prior to my diagnosis “caused” it – when in fact, I had a healthier diet than most.

    The other thing that I found interesting is a propensity to try to assign blame for an illness within a family. My illness is genetic, and it presents strongly in one branch of my family. Other family members have actually used this as an excuse to blame the family member whom they thought was the source, as if she could have done anything different – besides choosing not to have children, which would have meant that a particular person’s husband would never have been born. It’s really crazy how people attempt to come to terms with this stuff.