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Marissa Lingen

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Hollywood broken leg theory [Jun. 10th, 2010|04:46 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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One of my friends has posted a bit under friendslock about dealing with a health-related thing that is also a work-related thing; you can see why this would be understandably private and not the sort of thing I would be poking this friend to unlock. So I wanted to pull what I was thinking out here where I can poke at it and not poke at my friend's private issues as well.

The thing is, I think we are, as a culture, sort of in love with the broken leg model of illness, injury, and disability.

Here's what makes the Hollywood broken leg model so shiny.

With a broken leg, you:
*know what has happened.
*know when it happened AND
*know it right away.
*know what to do to fix it.
*know about how long it will take to heal.
*know that it will not suddenly get less healed for awhile in the middle and then jump back to more healed again.
*can easily predict which things will stress the injury.
*know that it will be completely fixed when treatment is done.
*have at least some theory of where the person experiencing it falls on the continuum of sinner ("What were you doing on top of that water tower at 3 a.m. anyway? You're lucky it wasn't your neck!") to saint ("Hit by a drunk driver while helping an elderly nun across the crosswalk? Let me fluff that pillow for you, you poor baby!").
*do not have any doubt as a casual passerby whether there is something wrong, or what.

Of course, not all of this is actually true of broken legs, even! (I have edited in a few spots to add "Hollywood," because I want it to be absolutely clear that I know that my friends' leg injuries to not come with these magical advantages.) It's just the assumption from people who don't have the said broken legs. But it is a mighty convenient set of traits for an illness, injury, or disability to have. And the farther from this model your actual illness, injury, or disability goes, the more frustration you are likely to face from other people, because their questions are likely to be centered around the broken leg model.

Why didn't you go in sooner? they will snap. Sometimes they don't even notice that they are snapping, and if you point out that they're snapping, you need to stop being defensive. But see: if you break your leg, there are bits of broken leg sticking out, and you are an idiot for not going right in, right now! But what if you wake up just exhausted one morning? Should you go to the doctor that morning? "How long have you been exhausted?" the doctor will say. "Since this morning," you say. Wrong answer. Get more sleep, or less sleep. Get more exercise, or less exercise. Eat differently. Change something up. What if you feel a little dizzy? If you're female, does this correlate with your menstrual cycle? Well, if you've only had it for one day, you can't really say, can you? Why didn't you go in sooner? Because some things are not a broken leg. And if you get a history of going in and mentioning things that have not really been a problem very long, if you're not very lucky, you get a doctor who writes down "hypochondriac" or "drug-seeking," and then when it's still a problem later, you've got that to deal with. The cardiac surgeon's memoir I read recently acted as though women could go in with fatigue and find out whether they'd had a heart attack every time they had fatigue, since fatigue is the main symptom of heart disease in women, and I laughed and laughed. It is not some feminine perversity that makes that not happen. Really, really not.

Why don't you take meds for that? they will ask. Because naturally there are meds for that in existence. And they work for you. And they don't interact badly with anything else you have to take. It's just spite that makes you not take them, or spite that makes you take them wrong so that they don't work perfectly. This is the twenty-first century! They can fix things! Who can? You know--They! They can! Them! They would have already if you had only gone in sooner! What these people mostly want is for you to have a big plaster cast on your kidney, your endocrine system, your ears, or whatever else is not working--in some cases your actual broken leg that was not perfectly fixed by divine fiat somehow, because the world does not magically work like that--so it can fix the thing, they can sign it, and then in a few weeks somebody can come along and saw the thing off and everybody can go skipping merrily along. Most of us want this too. It just doesn't happen to work that way.

I'm pretty sure I do this to people, because one thing I've learned in the last few years is that we are all really terrible at spotting the ins and outs of illnesses, injuries, and disabilities not our own, so one of my new self-checks before I open my mouth is going to be, "Am I trying to treat this like a Hollywood movie of a broken leg again?" Too many of the formal things we have set up for employment and compensation are working on the broken leg assumption. The least we can do is not perpetuate them when we have the option.

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[User Picture]From: p_j_cleary
2010-06-10 09:54 pm (UTC)
Thanks for writing this. I didn't even know it needed to be said until I read it.
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[User Picture]From: ckd
2010-06-10 09:54 pm (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: zellandyne
2010-06-10 10:06 pm (UTC)

On the flip side, when people say to me, "Oh, I'm so glad I don't have that problem" - which, by the way, is not a particularly nice thing to say - I want to tell them that they very well might and they ought to check. And I run the risk of being overly emphatic and seeing my own condition in other people when it isn't there. Because I said the exact same thing once, and I turned out to be wrong.

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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-06-10 10:09 pm (UTC)
Yah, I can totally understand why people are glad not to have vertigo--I'm glad they don't have vertigo--and yet it seems a bit tactless to say it to me quite like that. It's not like my physics major, where it seemed tactless but at least it was something I had chosen for myself so I could be blamed for it if they felt blame was necessary.

But we also have had several runs of, "Here is a less easily detected/widely known about thing that we have found out about, and perhaps you should look into it," around here, particularly in family groupings. People don't always agree to. But I know the impulse.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-06-10 10:21 pm (UTC)
One of the most common ways of expressing health concern is not the neutral, "What happened?" but the accusatory, "What did you do?" This is often even skewed in its intonation: "WHAT did YOU DO?"

And one of the things it means is, "What did you do that I can avoid doing so that I can dodge this thing that happened to you?"

"What did you screw up that I can get right so that I can be okay where you are not okay?"

Even, "What happened?" assumes that there is an event, something you can point at. Even if it's that a bolt of lightning or a meteorite hit you while you were sitting innocently in your living room reading, something happened, and there is before, and there is after. Whereas with, say, food allergies, or depression, or many other things people I know deal with, there is less the bolt from the blue--even if we stipulate that it is the blameless bolt--and more the gradual awareness that not all is well, or at least not as well as it could be.

Story-seeking is a very human urge. It's just not always a very useful or appropriate one.
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[User Picture]From: haddayr
2010-06-10 10:59 pm (UTC)
oh, this a thousand times this
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[User Picture]From: cakmpls
2010-06-10 11:28 pm (UTC)
That's an interesting comparison, the broken leg, because it's exactly the one my doctor made when I saw him yesterday. He deals with chronic pain himself, and we were discussing how people who have never had to do so don't understand how exhausting it is, and he said precisely that: "It's not like a broken leg," and for some of the same reasons you give.

(I do, however, have the "advantage" of my age--people expect those my age to be falling apart one way or another!)
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[User Picture]From: magentamn
2010-06-11 01:16 am (UTC)

We have a "blame the victim" mentality in our culture, which is one of its great evils.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-06-11 03:44 am (UTC)
We also have a vocabulary such that it's hard to say this without casting somebody as a victim. In no way do I mean to criticize your phrasing, because I'm having extreme difficulty coming up with a way of saying it that doesn't mean the same thing anyway, without being completely clunky about it. "Blame the...problem-having person" is just not pithy.
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[User Picture]From: redbird
2010-06-11 02:28 am (UTC)
This is useful. Thank you.
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[User Picture]From: reveritas
2010-06-11 02:42 am (UTC)
Oh, goodness, yes.
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[User Picture]From: jenett
2010-06-11 03:33 am (UTC)
You are brilliant. (And I do hope to be making some posts less under lock about some of it, but am being sensible and waiting till the current work stuff is not on the table before I do.)
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[User Picture]From: dd_b
2010-06-11 03:47 am (UTC)
This is an entirely fine and completely on-target bit of rant.

In certain cases, it should be engraved on razor-edged steel sheets, folded to maximize the exposed edge, and, um, applied suitably to people who apparently are in need of a truly memorable experience on the topic.
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[User Picture]From: timprov
2010-06-11 03:49 am (UTC)
And then when people asked how they got their injury, they would have a ready answer.
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[User Picture]From: mamculuna
2010-06-11 03:51 am (UTC)
I actually just had a broken foot, and it was pretty much Hollywood variety. Having had other ailments that weren't at all Hollywood, I really loved how clear and simple it was,even while hobbling around in a cast. The doctor didn't doubt that I really had it. The cure was not worse than the injury. The insurance didn't question the need for a cast or even X-rays. It didn't make me look weird (I happen to think a purple cast is glamorous). It meant that I got lots of attention and lots of support, because everybody can see a purple cast. And I didn't have to worry about the long-term side effects of the treatment, since they've been splinting broken bones for a while now.

I suffered much more debilitating pain with a nerve injury that went through three doctors before even being diagnosed, and then just when I thought it was well, came back double-strength.I took drugs that could have done some bad stuff to my liver, and I was irritable and cranky for months. And I couldn't go around announcing "I'm in hideous pain, feels like a giant bird has its claws in my neck," so I had to pretend I felt just like everyone else at parties and meetings. The only good aspect was that I did develop faith in the appropriate alternate medicine, and that's helped me with other things since.

When I think about problems like the one you suffer with, I can't begin to imagine the psychological and social problems it creates.

ETA: I know your real point was the blame-seeking that attaches to so much illness. Sorry to hijack with a slightly OT rant of my own, but I'd just been thinking about this.

Edited at 2010-06-11 03:54 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-06-11 07:28 pm (UTC)
I don't think you were hijacky at all.
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[User Picture]From: matociquala
2010-06-11 04:09 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: dichroic
2010-06-11 11:50 am (UTC)
The other thing they don't tell you with broken legs is that you'll heal faster (or at all) if you only maintain the proper chirpy attitude.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2010-06-11 07:27 pm (UTC)
Yes, fatigue is supposed to be the most common symptom of heart problems among women. Although heart problems are not the most common cause of fatigue among women, not by a long shot. I'm glad they did make sure, and I'm glad the cure was so nice.
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