The Shame of Illness

I have few memories of illness in my family as I was growing up. Minor ailments were barely acknowledged. Sickness was spoken of as something which, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.

In my husband Len’s final year, I became intimately involved with persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed, to take at set times, in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.

On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often: on a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered: nine. Compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause, yet I was embarrassed by his admission.

A few years ago, I came across a study which reported that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. The finding was that those persons who made the effort to describe their pain, in some detail, were better able to thereafter cope with the pain. I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well.

Not too long thereafter, I had a scare, arising from a routine physical. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, a week of waiting for results.

I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I emailed my kids, giving them the details.

The reduction in stress was palpable.

Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.

Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?

Was I shamed by an old parental message that illness was in some way a punishment for wrong doing? What better defense mechanism than hiding this moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted us to be”?

The study results, and my own experience, hopefully have silenced my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, and to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life. Giving voice to them not only opens the way to receive loving support, but lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.