5 Things I Didn't Know About Health Care (Until I Got Sick)

#2. People Will Assume That Your Sickness Is Your Fault

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No matter what kind of long-term illness you have, you will eventually run into this person. The one who remains convinced that, despite what doctors say, you are sick because you just haven't tried enough. "But have you tried positive thinking?" they ask you. "What about switching to an all-raw lembas diet?" "Why don't you try having tantric sex with organic dolphins?"

Yes, sometimes these people are just trying to help, and obviously there's nothing wrong with trying to live healthily. But as your illness progresses and nothing works and these people still won't shut the hell up, you start to notice something darker behind this attitude. There's this lurking assumption that health and illness are always within our control, and that if a person is sick, it must somehow be their fault. The attitude is a manifestation of a mental bias called the Just World Hypothesis (I assume "Ignorant Bullshit" was taken), the belief that the world is fair and that bad things do not happen to good people. So sick people are never sick because they have been randomly bitch-slapped by bad luck -- it's because they're not thinking positively, they're having too much sex (or not enough), they ate food with "chemicals" in it instead of consuming pure energy, and so on.

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"She must have done something. Probably stole something from a child."

Now, obviously some diseases are preventable, and we should not all resume licking the floor in the Guangdong First American Toys and Lead Smelting Factory because human health is subject purely to the capricious whims of Fate. But the depressing truth is that, ultimately, our health is not in our control. You or I could come down with cancer or rheumatoid arthritis or Suddenly Liking Nickelback Syndrome tomorrow, and all the vegan diets and positive thinking in the world might not keep you safe. But that idea is soul-wrenchingly terrifying, so a lot of people make themselves happier by simply pretending that it isn't true. And if that means stigmatizing sick people, so be it.

#1. You'll Probably Be Invisible

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Television and movies generally feature two categories of sick people. First, there's the character who gets sick and is then cured completely when it's time for the plot to move on. Second, the plucky, cheerful disabled or dying character who's there to make the healthy characters feel better about their own lives. And then during ad breaks there's the pharmaceutical ads, which are always populated by people like this:

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Because nothing says "multiple sclerosis" like a fun run.

Real illness is rarely like that. Sometimes even successful treatment doesn't cure you; it just makes life go from "Star Wars Episode I-level awful" to "Star Wars Episode III-level bearable." Sometimes illness doesn't teach you anything, or make you a better person. But because so many of us rely on the quick and/or life-affirming versions of illness we've seen on television and in movies, we tend to discourage real-life experiences when they don't match up. Cancer sufferers discover that people don't want to listen when they express understandable feelings of anger or depression, because everyone expects people with cancer to be strong and courageous so that we can repeat their uplifting stories in email forwards. People who are sick for years might find that friends who were understanding at first gradually start to drift away, as if they're thinking, "Didn't you have surgery already once? Isn't that story arc over yet? For God's sake why aren't you doing a fun run?"

Things aren't much better in the nonfiction parts of the media, either. Remember that Just World Hypothesis? The comforts of its delusional embrace mean that stories about sick people who got what they deserve are always far more popular than potentially unsettling stories about people who got sick through no fault of their own. Instead of coverage of people who are fat because of thyroid problems or PCOS or genetics, we have reality shows that feature overweight people eating cheeseballs off the floor. News reports skip over the hundreds of people who got dick cancer through no fault of their own and focus on that one guy who drilled a hole in a nuclear reactor and had sex with it.

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Bucket list complete.

No, there's probably not a lot you can do to fix the system -- that has to come from the people who run it -- but hopefully I've at least helped prepare you for it. Trust me, expecting the clusterfuck will save you even more medical bills on fist repairs.

C. Coville is now cured of all non-cannibalism-related brain problems, and has a Twitter here and a Tumblr here.

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