After my diagnosis of adrenal insufficiency, then the last foothold that bullies had made into my mind, it fell away like sand.
It wasn’t just that the diagnosis was so obvious, so grounded in specific laboratory tests that nobody with any knowledge could argue with. It wasn’t that, so much, at all.
It was what I felt in my body.
It was the way I felt life returning to my body.
It was the way I felt sturdy rather than fragile.
It was doing forty jumping jacks in a row, fast.
It was going up seven flights of steps to use a treadmill for ten minutes, then go all the way downstairs, and then back up to my apartment.
It was doing things, large and small, that my body couldn’t do before. Couldn’t. Not even a little.
It was feeling that fall away from me again, temporarily, when my body first adjusted to the dexamethasone dose I was on, and having it come back again when we raised the dose.
I realized that the reason the bullies got to me so badly was because deep down I thought maybe they were right. I’d experienced a severe but undiagnosed chronic illness for years, and it had gotten much worse six years ago. I painstakingly hid as many aspects of it as I could, let people believe there were other reasons that I could do less online, because every time I described an illness, I’d get bullied for it. I’d get told I was making stuff up for attention. When I was hospitalized last year, I sought help online with obtaining access to a life-saving treatment, and some bullies even had the nerve to capitalize on a life-and-death medical situation to give them a platform to denounce me again. Then when I described the situation, one of them had the extra nerve to come here and tell me that because I was fat, I couldn’t possibly have enough eating problems to need a feeding tube. (I’ve lost nearly 70 pounds involuntarily. When it was only 40 pounds in 2 months, a doctor told me I was burning muscle and that it was going to affect my heart. Do I have to be dead of starvation before I’m thin enough for my gastroparesis to be real?)
And on some level I accepted this.
And I accepted it because I thought that maybe I really was imagining things. After all, I had no firm diagnosis for this mystery illness that was causing me so much trouble. Maybe I didn’t want to get better. Maybe if I just wanted to enough, I could jump and run and walk up stairs. Maybe I didn’t have to be in bed all day. Maybe the vomiting and burning hot and freezing cold and total limpness were something I could make go away, with everything else, if I wanted to enough. Maybe I was somehow making it up, and then fooling myself into thinking I wasn’t making it up.
And I can tell you that nearly everyone I talk to with a hard-to-diagnose condition has thought this way. But those of us who have been bullied or harassed, and had rumors spread about us that we’re faking everything? We think this way more. We may hide it well, but most of us think this way, at least on bad days. And it’s a terrible way to think. It winds around your head and makes it hard to take any action at all in life. It makes you doubt the deepest things about yourself. It can make you passive, it can make you lash out, but either way it makes you less effective at anything you’re trying to do. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re divided against yourself, doing the bullies’ work for them.
Anyway, this has all changed.
I don’t think like this anymore.
The test results tell me that everything I felt wrong with my body all these years, has a measurable, physical cause that’s very simple: I don’t make enough cortisol, because I don’t make enough ACTH. Years of depletion has led to chronic and even life-threatening illness. And this is clearly adrenal insufficiency (a medical diagnosis), not ‘adrenal fatigue’ (a vague catch-all that requires no actual proof of an adrenal problem at all).
But it’s not the test results.
It’s what I feel in my body now that I’ve gone on dexamethasone.
It’s being able to run and jump and climb stairs and go for long walks.
It’s feeling sturdy for the first time in years. It’s feeling the fire of life course through me for the first time in years.
It’s realizing I could live to old age, and starting to wonder what it will be like to have grey hair and wrinkles.
No bully can take those realizations away from me.
And the change that has happened in me makes me realize how disgusting this form of bullying is, and what a low form of humanity anyone is who deliberately participates in it. And I’m angry. It’s an intense, focused anger. Focused on everyone who has ever tried to make me doubt who I am and what I am experiencing.
Because I have a better fucking track record than most people with chronic illnesses, when it comes to having things show up on actual test results like this. And yet every time, every time I have to prove myself. Sometimes the proof comes at the last minute. One day the proof may come too late to save me, and you’ll have that on your conscience, if you even have a conscience.
Problems urinating, dismissed out of hand as psychological in 2000, diagnosed around 2006 as spasticity of the urethra, treated with an implant that helps my muscles relax. But not before I had infection after infection after infection.
A variety of really nasty symptoms, dismissed out of hand as being ‘fat and lazy’ and other things of the like, for years. By the time, around 2003, that they found the problem, my gallbladder had not only produced two large gallstones, it had failed completely and was sitting in there dead by the time they pulled it out. The surgeon was visibly angry at everyone who had delayed diagnosis and treatment.
Breathing symptoms. Got me thrown out of emergency rooms more than once because treatments for asthma didn’t help — cyberbullies then proceeded to use those stories to convince people that “even ER doctors think she’s manipulative, see?” They never thought to check if it was something other than asthma. Eventually they found an infection and atelectasis in part of my lung. Even after that was fixed, I was getting told that my continued breathing problems weren’t a big deal, were all in my head, all that kind of thing. Until I got assigned a new pulmonologist, who did a CT scan and found “mild bilateral lower lobe bronchiectasis and scattered peripheral tree-in-bud opacities consistent with small airways disease”. When treated for bronchiectasis, the problems got significantly better. Imagine that?
I had ongoing joint pain that I knew wasn’t arthritis, so I avoided telling doctors about it because I didn’t want to tell them about one more thing wrong with me that didn’t fit in the usual box. Finally a doctor badgered me into admitting that I had joint pain, then had me perform a series of movements. He diagnosed me with benign joint hypermobility syndrome on the spot — a condition that’s characterized by overly flexible joints combined with widespread joint pain. The test is really simple. Bullies claimed I was faking this even though I posted pictures of my thumb flat against my wrist, which is impossible to do without a hypermobile wrist joint. (I can also stick my foot behind my head and other fun party tricks that I really shouldn’t, medically, do. But I do do it sometimes because it’s the fastest way to prove to a doctor that I’m not kidding around about being hypermobile.)
I had ongoing problems with nausea and food that stayed in my stomach for way too long, sometimes I’d throw up things I’d eaten days before. This was eventually diagnosed as gastroparesis, using a test where you eat radioactive eggs and they test how slowly it goes through your stomach.
And now I’ve had this baffling array of symptoms, for years, and the blood cortisol test, ACTH test, and ACTH stimulation test confirmed that it’s a severe secondary adrenal insufficiency. My response to treatment, according to my endocrinologist, more than confirms it.
How many people with chronic illness can say they have a track record this good? Of saying they had a medical problem, and having it actually show up on a test in such a clear fashion? I mean, the problems I have tested as having have not by any means all been the problems I was expecting to have. But they all eventually showed up as something. And that’s more than a lot of people can say.
So why the extensive bullying about being fake, when I have more proof of my authenticity as a sick person than most sick people will ever have?
It’s not because there’s any actual evidence that I’m faking anything. It’s because bullies will be bullies, and they sensed this as a vulnerable point for any person with a chronic illness. It’s because, I’m sure, a few of them have actually convinced themselves that they are on a righteous crusade against evil, and I am evil. It’s because I have some people who, for reasons unknown to me, really hate me, and they thought this would be fun.
But it’s also because there’s a cultural norm that says that disabled people are all potential fakers until proven otherwise.
It’s because everyone is always looking for whether the wheelchair user can wiggle her toes, whether the blind man picks up a book and reads it with his eyes, whether the nonverbal person can say a few words here and there when xe’s under sufficient pressure and all the stars align just right. It’s because people believe that we are all getting away with something. That disability is about getting something for nothing. That being sick means getting special privileges. That everyone would fake illness to ‘play hooky’ from life, if there wasn’t constant vigilance against the possibility.
Governments love to spur on this kind of hatred and suspicion. Disabled people in the UK right now are afraid to leave their houses because hate crimes have risen. And the hate crimes have risen as a result of a media campaign saying that disabled people are exaggerating or faking their conditions in order to get benefits that they don’t deserve. People are afraid of getting beaten up in public, because they’re being scapegoated by the government for the financial crisis that’s plaguing the world today. And disabled people are always among the first to get scapegoated for such things. We’re too expensive. We need too many special privileges. This always happens, and horrors follow.
According to Paul Longmore in Why I Burned My Book, the idea that you need to watch to make sure disabled people aren’t cheating on our benefits goes back to the English Poor Laws. I wish I had my copy of his book on hand so that I could tell you everything he knows about the subject. But basically it made it clear that there were poor people who deserved help, and poor people who didn’t deserve help. And that we needed to always be careful only to be helping the right people. And that the wrong sort of people would always be trying to take advantage of our charity and goodwill, so we must always be on guard.
And that attitude is what’s behind the suspicion of any disabled person who isn’t 100% stereotypical.
Speaking of which — you want to find a disabled person who is faking? Find someone who has absolutely consistent abilities that never waver in any way, who is always able to do the same things, always unable to do the same other things, and those things never shift around. She’ll be very much like the stereotype of whatever condition she claims to have, and won’t deviate in the slightest. She will be everything you expect of a disabled person. And that is why you will never find her so you might as well give up looking.
The people you pick on relentlessly as fakers are the ones who are generally actually more typical of disabled people, but less stereotypical. We don’t have just one condition, we have two or three or four at minimum. Our abilities are a moving target that we can’t always predict, let alone anyone else. We seem to be able to do one thing but unable to do something else that we “should” be able to do if we could do the first thing. We don’t obey any of the rules people have in their heads of how disabled people are supposed to be like. And because of this we are vulnerable and because of this we are targets for relentless bullying, harassment, and defamation.
So a lot of us hide things that aren’t stereotypical. Or we hide how bad things are. Or we hide how bad things have gotten. Or we try to play the role of a more stereotypical disabled person, hoping it will free us from bullying. But then if we are exposed as having hidden anything, ever, or pretended anything, ever, then bullies have ammunition to accuse us of faking, and it all gets worse. So we’re trapped in a double bind: There is no way to be ourselves and escape ableist bullying.
I realize how much I have come to accept that I am an acceptable target, when I think of a good friend of mine and what would’ve happened (and it almost did, but for a twist of fate) if she’d met up with the same bullies I met up with at a certain point in my life. It makes me shake with rage. It makes me cry. The very idea of her having to go through this makes me furious. And I realize that I need to be just as furious that I’ve been forced to go through this, often with very little support and backup, for so long. Because I matter just as much as she does, and I’m just as real as she is.
I have to say, though, that I have met people who were faking or exaggerating disability in order to manipulate people. Very few, but I have met them. And I understand that when done in certain ways, such actions can be devastating to everyone forced to be around them. It can destroy trust. It can destroy the cohesion of communities that are important for disabled people. It can become an almost vampiric scenario where someone is draining time, energy, and money from people who can’t spare any of those things. That isn’t what happens the majority of times that people fake things (the majority of the time, it hurts few to no people, actually), but it can happen, and I understand why people are changed by it, why they have trouble trusting after something like that happens. I’ve been through it myself and it left my head upside-down for a long time afterwards.
But I’ve seen much more damage done to disabled people and our communities, by people who are overly suspicious of everyone for faking, than by people who are actually faking things.
In fact, I’ve seen irreparable damage done to disabled people simply at the idea that someone might think they were faking. It’s an insidious thought that gets into people’s heads and won’t let them go. It’s torturous. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. And I’ve seen it all but destroy a lot of very good people who’d done nothing wrong. And these aren’t even people who were directly targeted for ableist bullying the way I have been. All they had to do was see that the bullying happened, and that was enough to instill fear and self-doubt. Many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are dealing with so much self-doubt already, that bullying and witch-hunts simply pour gasoline on the fire. I would not be surprised if some people who were already feeling they had no hope of being understood, had been driven to attempt suicide this way before.
My self-doubt is gone.
It was like a fog that kept me always looking in the wrong direction. It made me unable to see myself.
I can see myself better now. I am strong. I am as real and genuine as everyone else. I have done nothing that deserves being singled out and attacked. I have far more proof of the reality of my medical problems than most people who are not being targeted have of theirs, and that tells me that I’m not being attacked because of anything I’ve done. But I can see, clearly, that I am stronger than anyone who has ever tried to attack me. Because I’ve now survived relentless attacks on my character, death threats, emotional manipulation, and head games. Things they probably wouldn’t have weathered anywhere near as well as I have.
I don’t have any hope that they will stop what they are doing. Because I can see now that what they are doing has nothing to do with reality. No amount of proof is enough. In fact they probably want me scurrying around trying to prove myself. They enjoy that. Because what they want is control over my life. They want me to be scared and running around frantically trying to please them. I’ll probably be dealing with this until they get bored or something, if that ever happens.
But there are things we can do to minimize the impact of people like this.
We can make it a community norm that it’s intolerable for people to bully each other about their disability status.
We can support people who are being bullied about their disability status.
We can support people who are not directly being bullied, but who express fears about whether their illness is imaginary, whether they are just somehow making things up without knowing it, that kind of thing.
We can make things safe for people to admit to feelings like that, without condemning them as guilty just because they’ve doubted themselves.
We can work against community norms that say it’s really important to catch disabled people “cheating” at being disabled.
We can make sure bullies know we aren’t listening to them, and we can make sure that their victims (both direct and indirect) know that we are on their side (because there’s nothing bullies love more than to make their victims feel as if we are alone and everyone is against us).
We can work for love and compassion and against one-upmanship, bullying-as-funny-entertainment, and ego.
There’s all kinds of things we can do.
And inside of ourselves, we can dismantle this self-doubt. Because self-doubt of this kind, it’s what this kind of bully wants. They don’t just want to make other people doubt us. The real fun comes from watching us squirm, watching us doubt ourselves, watching us tear ourselves apart.
I for one will never tear myself apart over this again. Because I know now, know in my bones, that this has all been real, all along. I feel it every time I walk up and down four flights of stairs without my legs giving out or even getting out of breath. I feel it every time I exercise without vomiting. I feel it every time I do jumping jacks, run, skip, and do all these things I couldn’t do before. I feel it in the fact that I never anymore get so exhausted that I need a bipap to breathe. I feel it in every single change my body has made since starting dexamethasone. This is what reality is. Anyone who thinks otherwise can screw themselves, but you won’t get a voice on my blog, not to tear me apart, and not to tear anyone else apart either. It’s what Dave Hingsburger taught me years ago: I’m okay, you’re mean. That’s all I need to know.