Language and Metaphors

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Consider the following alternatives:

1. I suffer from symptoms of asthma
2. I have asthma
3. I am an asthmatic

Can you see the difference? Does the language with which we describe our illnesses matter? I think it does. Our lives are a story that keeps unfolding. A large part of that story is determined by what we tell ourselves, and others, about ourselves. Whether you feel you suffer symptoms, own an illness or identify closely with it is a personal choice or, perhaps, simply intuitive but it shapes who you are and informs your behaviour and other choices.

As it happens, I do suffer from asthma symptoms (since early childhood) and I’ve noticed that as my condition becomes more easily managed owing to medical advances in treatment , my attachment to it as a facet of my identity has loosened. So you’ll notice my choice of language now where 30 years ago I would have been labelled-and labelled myself-an asthmatic.

I wonder, however, if that choice is as free or intuitive where ME is concerned. Consider the following alternatives:

1. I suffer symptoms associated with ME
2. I have ME
3. I am an ME sufferer

If asked by a stranger, how many of us would opt for the first alternative? If not, why not? One reason might be because not only have there been few medical advances in treatment there is as yet a complete dearth of understanding about what the condition actually is. Accordingly, very, very ill people are forced to raise awareness and plead for sympathy, understanding and support. Shamefully, this often needs to be directed at health professionals. Thus there is a sense of taking on responsibility for promoting just what’s involved: the sheer relentless, devastating, debilitating awfulness and that means identifying very closely with what’s going on in our bodies.

Ideally, I would aim for option 1 as it gives me the hope that at some point I will no longer suffer these symptoms. They will go as they came or will be capable of easy management. I certainly don’t want to own ME and as for it being my identity …..[insert suitable expletive!]

I’ve noticed in a few articles recently fantastic examples of people using language, specifically metaphors, to describe their experience with ME. Paul Tomkins describes it as half a man, one half stolen. You can read more about this here and Marie Curran describes it as her invisible friend here. Both articles are beautifully written and thought-provoking and I’m grateful to Paul and Marie for sharing their insight.

For my part I have long envisaged ME as an uninvited, abusive monster that lives within me and with whom I am forced to co-habit according to his draconian rules. ( Sorry guys, but I very much see ME as male!) More specifically, my ME monster looks like the giant in Jack and the Beanstalk; he’s huge, powerful and I have to tip-toe round about him so as not to wake him up and rouse his ire. He’s also very fickle. One day I might happily potter around with him only grunting in his sleep but on other days the same level of activity will unleash a ferocious backlash.

I’ve found the only way to handle him with any degree of success is to bore him into submission, largely by a process of aggressive resting, as I saw it described recently, living within my capabilities and taking few risks. Not much of a way to live (understatement) but accepting this does bring a measure of ease.

By using such metaphors we are able to try to make sense of our situation, to communicate with ourselves, with other sufferers, and with the wider world with the ultimate aim of getting ME firmly on the scientific research map to deliver treatments so that we (being optimistic) and those who come after us may have a chance at really living.

Over to you, what story do you have to tell?

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