Infection, Disease, and Illness. Oh my.

Jennifer and I were conversing earlier in the week about the conditions formerly known as STDs. Jennifer doesn’t agree with the relabeling of these conditions as STIs. Had our conversation not been rudely interrupted by the need to do our jobs, I think I would have been able to persuade him that this renaming was/is a positive move.

Why? Because the word “disease” is so stigmatized. Anyone can get an infection. Infections are spread to humans by other humans anytime humans touch something that is attached to or has been touched by other humans. We’ll count breathing air as a sort of tactile phenomenon, for the sake of the argument. Such are the ways of bacterial and viral infections.

Did you know that chicken pox is caused by a virus that is part of the herpes family?

Cancer is a disease. Cancer is serious. We refer to people who have had cancer as “So-and-So, you know, the one who had the cancer?” Chicken pox? Meh. Every kid gets the chicken pox. It’s caused by a viral infection. There is no “So-and-So, you know, the one who had the chicken pox?”.

Referring to the array of conditions now known as STIs as, well, infections, encourages people to spend less time focusing on how diseased they may be and more time on treating their infections. This leads to a healthier, happier populous. Hooray! And this paves the way for better, more effective dialogue between those who research or treat said infections and those who have or are at risk (are you a person? you fit in this category) to have them.

Sounds great, right?

 

So, then, let us talk about other illnesses. Let us talk about mental illnesses.

 

Generalized Anxiety. Major Depression. Social Anxiety. PTSD. OCD.

Welcome, friends, to my brain.

I have spent much of my evening — since consuming that large bowl of peppermint stick ice cream — reading articles about mental illness, and absorbing the attitudes people have toward those who are somehow mentally ill.

People are not very nice.

Physical illnesses are taken seriously because their effects are visible. I was recently diagnosed with Bell’s Palsy — a condition that was probably caused by the Epstein-Barr virus and resulted in the right side of my face being paralyzed. I was eating dinner with my family, and my brother made me angry. Then he cracked a joke, and I tried not to laugh. But I started to smile. Until I noticed that only half my face was moving. We thought I was having a stroke. Emergency room. Imaging. Blood work. Thousands of dollars. My face is almost back to normal, five weeks later. My trip to the hospital unearthed other physical-health-related concerns, so Dani has more doctors and tests and bills to look forward to, over the next few months. 

Nevertheless, when half my face was unable to move, I got away with a lot of things. I got extensions on papers. I got leeway at work. People were extra nice to me. No one complained when I spent my free daylight hours sleeping. I got to wear an eye patch (my pirate name is Stroke-Face McGee). People seemed genuinely concerned with my welfare, and tried very hard to be supportive in whatever way they could manage.

I’ve spent my collegiate career struggling with debilitating anxiety. People are not incredibly willing to let you sleep off a panic attack when you have ten of them a week. People are not incredibly understanding of an inability to compose because your brain will not calm down. People sometimes tell you to stop talking about how unattached you are to staying alive, because they are sick of hearing it. (You read that correctly. People tell you to stop telling them that you are having suicidal thoughts.) People tell you to get over yourself, stop complaining, and function.

And, just so we are clear, my experience with mental illness is relatively mild, in comparison to many of the people with whom I have lived, or worked, or been friends, or otherwise interacted.

I’ve read so many comments today from people who tout that mental illness is a cop out, or that it didn’t exist back in their day, or that single-parent households are the breeding grounds of psychosis and if young people would just keep their hands to themselves and wear clothing with higher necklines then these things wouldn’t exist.

Near my old apartment, there was a billboard that read, “You wouldn’t say, ‘It’s just cancer.’ Depression hurts.”

I’m not going to equate depression and cancer. They are two different beasts. My dad’s cancer went undetected for quite some time because his brain tumor caused him to exhibit symptoms of depression. But it wasn’t depression that killed him.

Still. Depression needs to be taken seriously. Mental illness needs to be taken seriously. There need to be better resources. There needs to be a better dialogue. People need to be able to get the help that they need to live healthier, happier lives. And those whose lives are fortunate enough to not be touched in one way or another by mental illness need to be considerate of the experiences of those who are struggling. And those whose mental health is under control need to be considerate of those whose mental health is not, for one reason or another. We need to erase the stigma that those with mental illness are lazy or damaged or freakish or what have you.

This has become quite the extensive treatise. In short:

Be kind. Be understanding. Try to ask for help, if you need it. Be willing to help, if you are asked. Do not pass judgment. Keep a lookout for those who need someone. Be someone else’s person. Extend to others the words and actions you would want to receive, if you were at your lowest point.

You know.

Basic tenets of positive human interaction.

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