Tag Archives: people

Passing for Well

For people with illnesses that are not always visible to observers, the concept of ‘passing’ may be quite familiar. For them it means passing as healthy under the everyday perceptions of their peers. Many of us have experienced passing from a perspective of race, sexuality, religion, or politics, and it is always for the same reason: avoiding prejudice. Managing long-term illness is a difficult task in many unexpected ways.

It’s important to question why ill people should choose to be inauthentic in their lives. Judith L. Alpert suggests in her work, ‘Loss of Humanness: The Ultimate Trauma’ (2012) that an ill person may find themselves excluded from various activities because they may be seen as a weak person who must be treated delicately; certainly not a person that one can ‘argue with, depend on, or treat as an equal.’ This makes them seem less desirable romantically, socially, and in a work environment. It’s logical to want to avoid this.

Long-term illness implies unreliability. In a job interview I take care not to mention my own chronic illness (unless asked directly) even though it has a huge effect on my life. While it is illegal to discriminate, employers can find other reasons not to employ someone if they believe the person will be a drain on the company. It’s in the nature of chronic illness to have to continue meeting the demands of your life regardless of how unwell you are, and I have a history of taking fewer sick days than most other employees. But the stigma surrounding illness is difficult to undermine.

Particularly when confronted with more severe illnesses, there can be a strange fear of even being around the ill person in those who are comparatively well. As Alpert points out, it is not unheard of for a medical practitioner to demand that a breast cancer patient should get a prosthetic replacement to ‘elevate the spirits of people in the doctor’s office.’ It is considered admirable to hide signs of our pain; R. Murphy states in ‘The Body Silent’ (1990) that ‘the person who smiles and jokes while in obvious physical misery is honoured by all.’

The reasons for passing can have a focus on the perceived needs of the ill person. Observers may support someone in their choice to pass because they don’t want to remind them of their suffering. For example, if someone is crying, many would assume that they are embarrassed by their outburst and try to support them in their return to a calm facade by changing the subject or making jokes. Often this is legitimately what the person wants. If the nature of long-term illness requires a lot of ‘soldiering on’, there are certainly days when someone even simply asking about your health will make this much harder. Because the moment someone asks about it you may cry, and you may not be able to stop crying. And you have shit to do.

Sometimes people with invisible illnesses also simply want to exercise their freedom to choose who knows about their condition. If I walk to uni hunched over, breathing loudly, pausing occasionally to lie on the ground in the foetal position to wait for a wave of pain to pass, I will probably feel compelled to explain my strange behaviour to the strangers who witness it.  In particular my illness, chronic IBS, is one of many that are considered ugly and shameful because it affects bowel movements. I am not yet above that shame. And I don’t actually want to explain myself to the whole world, so I pretend I’m fine and the only reason I’m walking this slow is because I’m being leisurely today.

While passing is a practical solution for avoiding the results of social stigma, and while it makes getting through the day easier, it creates regular inauthenticity in your life. It might not sound like a big deal, but it has a huge effect on the way you feel, and creates discrepancies in how you understand yourself and in the way others will choose to treat you. In a way, you are lying on a daily basis. It makes you feel disconnected from the people in your life. You don’t know if they are friends with an incomplete picture of you.

You begin to take measures to pass automatically and lose your connection to the truth. You can lose your gauge of how bad your symptoms are until you’ve reached the point of collapse. Things get much worse than they should have before you could have noticed and taken measures to look after yourself better. It inhibits your connection with your body, which inhibits your management of the symptoms.

People are also less likely to understand you if you are deliberately distorting the signals you communicate to them about how you’re feeling. They are less likely to believe you when you try to explain how bad it is. They don’t know how to help you, and they will probably miss your signals in situations when you no longer have a choice but to depend on their help.

For the ill person, passing is an opportunity to find control in a situation that is entirely out of their control. They may not be able to get well any time soon, but they can at least have some power over how people perceive them. They can avoid some of the social disadvantages of having a long-term illness and they can feel courageous in doing so.

My dad told me recently that he was proud of how well I hide my illness. It could sound like he’s proud of me for hiding my shameful secret or something, but I think he really meant that he’s proud that I have found a way to cope and that I’m pretty good at it. From a practical, survival point of view, passing is a good idea for me. But if you choose to pass, it’s important to balance that by remaining authentic with a few people that you love and trust.

I find that most people don’t want to know about illness. Even if they brought it up, and I joke and I understate and I try to fit my explanation into only one or two sentences, they seem instantly bored or irritated. I don’t know if they think I’m making it up, or if they don’t think it’s as bad as I’m saying. But these days whenever someone tells me they’re struggling, I not only believe them, but I assume it’s probably much worse.

I Have a Crush on Everyone

I have always found people beautiful. But until recently I’ve never been able to tell if it was objectively true, or if it was just my subjective understanding. My dad often scares people because he looks like a bikie – he’s a big guy with a shaved head, a beard and a weathered face.  But I think he’s one of the most beautiful people I’ve ever seen. So I know there is a discrepancy sometimes between how I see people and how the majority sees people.

Whilst any assessment of beauty is subjective, I refer to ‘objective beauty’ as that which would be agreed upon by most people. Signs of health, for example, are objectively beautiful – like clear skin, clean teeth and bright eyes. These things are generally considered to be good. A subjective understanding of beauty is a result of love. Of course you think your friends and family members are beautiful. It’s even obvious that you’ll find strangers beautiful, if you assume whatever you see in them is good. You’re not seeing their outside appearance – or if you are, you’re seeing it bathed in the glow of who they are.

So I was resigned to never glimpsing an objective superficial understanding of people, until I enrolled in the first year art topic, Drawing and Design Fundamentals. During these classes, we were basically told to start drawing what we could see. We were encouraged to stop seeing people and objects as images to which we had attached significance. Rather than drawing an eye as the symbolic circle within an almond shape, we were to draw the lines and shadows that our minds would translate into an impression of the eye. When I drew a person, I stopped seeing her as everything I knew she was, but simply as a collection of lines and contrasting tones.

Three sketches of my tutor – can you guess which one was done with my left hand?

Now that I wasn’t acknowledging in my mind the personal significance of what I was seeing, I could focus more on an isolated understanding of aesthetic. That was when I realised that beauty wasn’t at all in my head. I started marvelling over the curves of wrists, brows and ankles – things that I would never have found exceptional before. I revelled in every new model, because by tracing all of their perfect lines I could pin down another unique form. I wanted to blurt out how beautiful they were, and why, throughout the entire process. The truth is, dear reader, people are just as gloriously beautiful on the outside as they are on the inside. Now I can’t help but swoon over everyone I see – and there is literally no one without something that makes them gorgeous.

A sketch of Daniel.

But then, if I focus entirely on a person as a group of lines alone, my drawing often finishes up not quite true to life. Somehow I don’t quite grasp the whole image; there’s no soul in it. So now, whenever I draw, I try to swap back and forth between seeing a person as a meaningless image and seeing them in their ‘glow.’ I try to impress upon the paper both their objective aesthetic and the identity that lights up their entire form. It’s the only way I can make my drawings work. It seems that, regardless of how superficially lovely a person can look, their spirit is an essential part of their beauty.

Another of my tutors. He sat extremely still; it was both useful and a little concerning :P

I am writing this article mostly because I want people to know how amazing they are. When I see a person and think about how great they look, I don’t usually say anything. I would be disturbed myself if a stranger approached me and gushed about the lines of my shoulders, or how the light makes the hair on my forearms look like sparks. I can tell a person that I like their clothing, or their jewellery, but there’s something very personal about commenting on a person’s body – even if it’s complimentary. I think it’s because it is proof that you have been looking at them more closely than they would like. So I ignore the impulse to vocalise my inner swooning. But you, reader, must know that you are beautiful. It’s too easy to forget.

So while I can’t talk to you personally and point out all the ways you look fantastic, I can talk about the one thing we all have in common: eyes. No matter who you are or what you don’t like about your face or body, your irises are two perfect circles in the midst of all the organic, asymmetrical lines of your form. Two perfect circles, filled with delicate mixes of colour that can be likened to the explosions of light found among the stars; to the delicate fibres of bright coral; or to whatever your conception is of magic. Eyes are beautiful on a phenomenal level. We express most of ourselves through our eyes. This means eyes are the visible connection between our physical beauty and our inner beauty. Your eyes are perfect. You are perfect. No one is an exception.

So if anyone comes up to you in the future and tells you that you have amazing ankles, please don’t be scared. Maybe she’s not a creepy stalker – maybe she’s just a creepy artist.