2016 is the year of the bizarre. It’s taken away the good bizarre—David Bowie and Prince—and given us the bad bizarre—Trump’s presidential candidacy. But a bizarre experience I had recently was sitting in the waiting room of an imaging center, still feeling warm from the contrast given to me for my CT scan, waiting to be called back for an MRI, and reading the comments on an article about Hillary Clinton saying she thought her pneumonia diagnosis would not be “that big of a deal.”
Many comments were par for the course—people angry that their loved one died of pneumonia and it IS “that big of a deal,” women relaying their experiences being sick and still living their lives, people saying that of course this happened because Clinton is a lizard person who didn’t think she was susceptible to human diseases, and one train of thought that really stuck out to me.
“It’s not that she’s sick,” said one woman. “It’s that she lied about it. Why would she lie about it, especially knowing so many people depend on her?”
Sweetheart, I know exactly why Clinton would lie about it. I’ve been doing it myself for months.
Now, some people, like Trevor Noah, have said they’re upset that Ms. Clinton lied because she could have gotten other people sick, and that IS a fair point. Others are upset because this is the cherry on top of the Clinton lie sundae, and that is also a fair point. But others are upset just because she lied, like she owes them something. That is what I take issue with.
I won’t regale you with the sordid tale of the mystery illness I’ve had for the majority of this bizarre Year of Our Lord 2016, just know that it’s not contagious. I’ve typed out and then erased my symptoms and how I feel because I don’t want to bore you, or worse, have you feel sorry for me. Or, even worse, have you deem that I’m exaggerating or playing the “victim card” because the way I feel doesn’t reach some sort of threshold for illnesses you’ve arbitrarily set. You figure that if I am not lying in a fetal position moaning in pain right this second, then it must not be “that bad.” You’re not alone in the way you feel—the great majority of the medical community—male and female doctors alike, mind—believes women are in less pain than they are. If we live in a culture that believes there’s “two sides” to every story about rape, then you are definitely going to think I’m just “whining” about a “tummyache” if I were to tell you about how I’ve been feeling.
Therein lies my solidarity with Ms. Clinton: this situation is very “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” If news had broken out when she first got sick, she would have been told to “suck it up, buttercup,” because many of the early symptoms of pneumonia are not unlike the common cold: cough, fever, chills, chest pains. I can see the Internet comments now: “Take some Dayquil so you can go back to deleting e-mails,” “Why is this news?” I had been having symptoms of my own illness for months before I went to the doctor, afraid that they would condescendingly tell me I was just “stressed,” or that what I had come down with was a chronic case of fetus incubation, or that I was just stressed about said fetus incubation. And they did accuse me of just that, but a physical examination made them realize that none of these makes one’s spleen swell up. Spleen-swelling is apparently pretty serious, so then the doctors barked at me, “Why didn’t you come see us sooner?!”
To that I say, because our culture doesn’t allow women to be sick. To be fair, it doesn’t allow men to be sick either, because our healthcare system is so messed up that many feel you have to be inches away from death to seek attention. Otherwise, how would you justify the cost? We’re like an entire culture of the Black Knight from Monty Python.
But there’s more of an insidious sexism to how we as a society treat sick women. If sexists say that women are too weak/hormonal and unfit for public office when they’re healthy, they’ve just gotten more ammunition when one proves to be less-than-healthy. This woman is weak, however temporarily, and because inexplicably one woman speaks for all women, they must all be weak, delicate flowers.
And this is to say nothing of the weird feminist guilt you get when you’re physically sick. There’s a feeling that you’ve fed into the patriarchy if you ask for help when you’re physically ill, that you are the weakling the sexists say you are. It’s not sexist men who are joking that men are “babies” when they have colds while women keep going when they have colds. Ms. Clinton didn’t admit she was sick not only because the sexists would have jumped on her case, but also because she felt like she would be letting down all the women who are working despite having conditions more serious than hers—she didn’t think her pneumonia was “that big of a deal” because she knows that out there is a single mother battling cervical cancer while working two jobs, and that is a big deal. And if you were to ask the single mother battling cervical cancer, she would say thank you for calling her strong but she knows of an elderly woman who is watching her husband of 60 years battle Alzheimer’s and that is what’s tough. And the elderly woman will say thank you for calling her strong but she knows of a woman who just had to bury her son and that’s a big deal . . . and so on and so forth. Like I wrote earlier, not everyone’s pain threshold is the same—your “crippling” may be someone’s “minor scrape,” and vice versa—so it is much easier to omit details of your illness than to try to hit someone’s moving target of what kind of pain is “acceptable.”
And finally, though this applies more to me as a private citizen than it does to a public figure who we might be counting on to lead the free world, I’m lying by omission about my condition because it’s none of your damn business. My coworker thought I was missing work so often because I was interviewing at other companies, and it took all I had not to look him in the eye and say “Boy, I wish.” I knew for a fact that due to a terrible car accident he was in a few years ago, his pain threshold is higher than mine, so he won’t take me seriously if I tell him. (My boss knows, of course, as does my husband and parents and some close friends.) I wonder about the day I finally receive a concrete diagnosis, if I’ll announce it on social media or not. I’m a thin, petite woman with a meek demeanor, so people already write me off as weak, therefore I don’t reveal to them my illness because they’ll be disappointed that I’m actually even more weak than I appear. Some might thank me for the bravery it takes to be vulnerable and admit stuff like this, but others will accuse me of playing the victim and that I should be grateful that I don’t have it worse. It’s a stupid-ass mentality—no one approached me on my wedding day and said I shouldn’t be happy because other people have it better than me—but that doesn’t stop them from thinking it. And, to be frank, I lie by omission because I don’t really have the patience for this mentality. I didn’t write this so you’d feel sorry for me, my illness is what it is, I wrote this so you might understand why Hillary wasn’t so jazzed about telling the world that she has pneumonia. She seems like she doesn’t need the stress right now.
Get well soon, Ms. Clinton. It’s okay to admit you’re suffering, so long as you don’t suffer fools while you do so.