Unrelated to fiction, but definitely on the list of issues about which I’m most passionate, I spoke at the Ignite Boulder 34 event in December 2017 about medication shaming. As someone who does rely on prescription medications to live my best life, I wanted to confront the idea that taking prescriptions is a sign of weakness, laziness and/or ignorance, an idea that’s definitely in the water in uber-healthy places like Boulder, Colorado. All bodies are imperfect and unpredictable, and if one person who watches this video takes their meds instead of risking their health because of social pressure, all the nerves and preparation will have been worthwhile. Enjoy! Transcript follows.
Hi, I am Kate. A while back, I was chatting with a neighbor when the subject of our health and prescriptions came up and she made a remark I’ve heard one too many times. She said, “I just don’t want to take a pill every day for the rest of my life, you know?” Again, this is a common sentiment. It probably seem like no big deal, unless you’re talking to me: someone who has prescriptions and who will take pills daily for the rest of her life. Now, being accidentally insulted is awkward and I know she meant no harm, so kind of smiled and nodded. Then I kicked myself afterward for not using the opportunity to talk about medication shaming. Now I have this opportunity, so we’re going to have that interesting conversation here, tonight, instead.
Let’s start with my neighbor. Obviously, she didn’t know that I deal with chronic illness. She sees me as the 38-year-old writer who’s always walking past her house to yoga. You can’t see rheumatoid arthritis, or RA. Osteoarthritis is age- and wear-related but RA is autoimmune. That means there’s no reason for my immune system to attack my own joint tissues, but it does, and that causes inflammation, pain and, eventually, permanent joint damage like this. Now, I’m not showing you these pictures to gross you out, although yeah. I also want to drive home that as a writer, use of my hands is serious business, yet when we talk about drugs, we tend to lump all prescriptions together as frivolous. We say things that minimize people’s symptoms. We glorify not asking for help as virtuous and active and heroic.
Whether or not these shaming messages are intended, we the chronically ill hear them loud and clear, and there are consequences. Take Holly, on the cover of a recent RA magazine. She was 36 when she was diagnosed, but she’d grown up using natural therapies and avoiding doctors, so she didn’t always take the meds her rheumatologist prescribed. Within six months, her fingers were deformed. Is she a hero now? I think that’s what people forget, what life was like before modern pharmaceuticals. Today there’s still no cure for RA, but we do have medications and injections that work to minimize disease activity and therefore minimize disease harm. Yet in same magazine reports that 70 percent of RA patients say they don’t always take their pills, and social pressure is one reason why. That’s what happens when we walk through the world as if she who takes the least pills wins. We who are chronically ill feel like we’re, well, less than.
And Boulder, I’m sorry, but no, there is no natural cure for every disease yet, either, and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something or writing for Upworthy. The form this shame takes is the have-you-trieds, as in, “Have you tried probiotics? Have you tried acupuncture? Have you tried avoiding nightshades?” If you’ve been a have-you-tried-er, I’m not trying to make you to beat yourself up. I know you only advice vomit on me because out of love, but it’s a lot of pressure when people seem to expect me to create my own Upworthy victory story — out of an incurable illness. And when you get have-you-trieds as much as I do, it begins to feel like you’re constantly auditioning for your compassion and respect.
Now I’m not making the counter argument here that all drugs are awesome. Big Pharma is a flaming bag of dog shit, corruption and greed. We know that they bribe our doctors, they want to give out opioids like candy, and they have earned our distrust. But lots of people in our community use pharmaceuticals to improve and lengthen their lives, and it’s unfair and cruel to label them all as mindless pill-poppers. For instance, me, I think of my meds as only one leg of my chair of health, the others being food and supplements, activity, and adequate mental healthcare. Can we underline that?
I think that in uber-healthy places Boulder, we tend to forget that we can’t out-triathlon mortality. The human body is squishy and weird and ultimately beyond our control. So I want you to know that when, not if, but when your body someday betrays you, there will always be a chair next to mine for you. I want you to know that you should do everything in your power without shame to live your happiest, longest life. That is heroic, too.
Be healthy out there, everyone!