Since my presentation on employment and young adults at DePaul a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking a lot about diagnosis. During the Q&A, we talked about whether there was any way around the almost myopic focus on the condition and symptoms new patients often experience during and right after diagnosis.
I considered that question for several days after I answered it (in short, it is a life-altering experience so in the beginning, it seems natural to me that it would consume a lot of emotion). I’m not one to start constructing categories for groups of patients, since the universality of the chronic illness experience is something I feel strongly about, but I have always had one major distinction in mind: patients who have been sick their whole lives, and patients who were healthy adults before they were patients with chronic illness.
I think that distinction is important, and that’s why I tried to include patients from both camps in my book. Each group has its own unique challenges: people like me never have to go through that huge transition from “before” and “after” that formerly healthy people do. We do not have to grieve for what used to be, or mourn for the healthier, more dependable bodies we used to have.
(Not that we don’t have our own set of losses to deal with; we do.)
It’s a question that seems to be popping up on blogs and in discussions a lot lately: Which is better, to have known healthy and a “before” or to have never known a “before?”
All I can say is that this is my normal, so I don’t miss what I never had. Nor do I really spend too much time thinking about what it would be like to have a different experience, to envision my life minus the major medical calamities and minor comical indignities.
But lately I’ve realized there is more to it than simply healthy versus sick, or before versus after, and it relates to the process of diagnosis. True, I will never share the same shock and transition that once healthy people do when they become sick, but I can commiserate with the “before” and “after” of getting a diagnosis. An accurate one, I mean.
Sure, I’ve been sick since my first auspicious breath of air (hello collapsed lungs and pneumonia) but for the majority of my twenty-nine years, only some of what is wrong with me was diagnosed and treated correctly. I know what it’s like to have doctors assume you must not be following their directions if you are not getting better, and I know what it’s like to finally get a diagnosis that matches your experiences and symptoms, that takes all the complications and contradictions and makes sense of them. As I’ve written before, when the explanation of illness matches the experience of illness, it’s a good thing.
Last fall, I asked you about the semantics of illness, where I made distinctions between the biological aspects of disease and the patient’s subjective experience of living with illness. As I wrote in the follow-up on language and the patient experience, having PCD and bronchiectasis did not make the actual symptoms I’d lived with forever different; it just made them more understood.
Which leads me to my final point—I realize it’s been a circuitous route this time. (Honestly, my propensity to ramble is directly related to my caffeine intake, and the filter in the coffee pot has been broken all week. Less coffee=more words.)
Where does all this leave the people who live with symptoms but have not received a diagnosis? If a label doesn’t change the course of treatment, perhaps it’s not as big a deal. But what if it would change it, the way it changed mine? And more compellingly, does it change the way the external world—from doctors and nurses to employers to friends and family—responds when the patient can give a concrete name or label?
If it does, then the real question is this: why are we so intolerant of ambiguity?