Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired

Strategies and alternatives for coping with fibromyalgia, bipolar disorder and other chronic illnesses

Blaming the “Victim” of Chronic Illness

Posted by wendyburnett on February 7, 2010

I was reading a post about blaming the victims of rape on Virginia Woods’ blog yesterday, and it made me think. “Victims” of chronic illnesses frequently get blamed for their illness as well, especially if they have something that isn’t very well understood by the medical community, like fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome. Victim blaming isn’t as common within the medical community when it comes to mental health issues like PTSD, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, but out in the “real world;” family, friends, and acquaintances frequently blame the mentally ill for their symptoms. (Have you ever been told to “just stop thinking about it and it will go away” or “you didn’t have a problem until you started seeing a therapist?” How about, “you don’t have anything to be stressed (or depressed) about,” or “I’m tired (or in pain) too, and it doesn’t stop ME from doing what I need to do.” I have, and I expect that I will again.)

Healthy people seem to have the idea that those of us with chronic invisible illnesses can control or eliminate our symptoms with willpower. Many, including some doctors and therapists, blame us for “causing” our own illness with our lifestyle choices or accuse us of “faking” to get out of doing things, or to get attention. I think that part of that may be because they mistake the results of living with chronic illness, such as depression and high stress levels; for the CAUSE of the illness, and think if we just got rid of the depression or stress, the illness would go away.

Have you ever gone to a doctor or psychologist who said that there was nothing physically wrong with you, and your pain and fatigue would go away if you reduced your stress levels, or worked on your depression issues? Ever had a well-meaning friend tell you if you just ate healthier foods, or exercised more that you’d be just fine? How about the ones that tell you that you create your own reality, and if you just stopped thinking such negative thoughts the pain would go away; or that say you’re “working out your karma” and paying for something you did in a past life?

It’s all just another version of “blaming the victim.” After all, if we caused our illness by our own behavior and choices, they don’t have to worry that the same thing could happen to them. It gives them the illusion of control, the idea that if they do the “right” things they don’t have to worry about getting sick (or being raped, or robbed, or burglarized.) They see us as “weak” because we can’t just overcome our symptoms, and since they are strong, they won’t ever get _______ (fill in the blank with any chronic illness.)

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28 Responses to “Blaming the “Victim” of Chronic Illness”

  1. I can’t think straight right now, but I think I agree!

  2. How often do we end up feeling the perpetrator instead of the victim?!? I have had a great deal of experience with that one!! :)It, in part, destroyed my marriage actually…. I was at my very worst and I felt like I was “doing” something to everyone else by being ill…. I was so busy defending myself that I didn’t have time to feel victimized.
    If people actually understood how little control we DO have maybe their opinions would be different…. I pray that the uneducated and the misunderstood learn ‘acceptance’.
    Our pain has nothing to do weakness…. if people only knew how much strength it takes to live the way we do…..

    • Yeah, I think the fibro/arthritis was the last straw for my first marriage. I just couldn’t handle the ex treating me like I’d gone out and gotten these horrible illnesses on purpose to make his life miserable. His favorite line was, “I don’t understand why the hell you’re always too tired to go anywhere, it’s not like you actually DO anything all week while I’m at work.” Yeah, right I didn’t do anything except keep “his” 1700 square foot house spotless, cook breakfast and supper every day, do all the shopping and errands, pay all the bills, do all the laundry and ironing, and make part of our clothes. Hell, I even had to load up the van once a week and haul the garbage to the dump because he was too damn cheap to pay $10 a month for garbage service.

      Nowadays I don’t have any money, and we lost the house and my car, but at least my husband is supportive, and I’m surrounded by people who care about me and don’t push me to do things that I’ll have to pay for later. (Except work, and I do that because it’s necessary, not because I’m pressured into it.) People with chronic illnesses are actually MUCH stronger than our healthy counterparts, if we weren’t we wouldn’t be able to survive.

      • You have an ex too? Oh girl, we probably could share some stories! 😉 My first marriage wasn’t good long before I got ill, but my illness definitely expedited the destruction…. it was very painful, and I believed it was all my fault for a long time. Once I got into the Chronic Pain Centre here I began to see a psychologist, and ended up in therapy for close to 2 years. It ended up being the best thing for me, I really started standing up for myself, and learning about how unhealthy some of my relationships were…. including my marriage. It prompted me to ask for a divorce.
        I have a child with this man, so we will always be connected, and it still has the ability to affect me health…. (I broke out in shingles this weekend…. can you say stress!)
        I am with my very best friend now, we have been together going on 2 years, and we might not be financially stable, or have the white picket fence and a dog in the yard, but I have never been happier…. I don’t have to explain myself to him, and he truly gets what I go through… it makes ALL the difference! I am SO blessed to have him in my life, and my son’s life!
        I think we have a few things in common! 🙂 I am here anytime you need a friend!
        And yes, we are SO much stronger than our counterparts… think about how you started your day today, and how much fortitude it took JUST for you to get through the first hour after you woke up…. It is what a lot of people don’t understand. Putting one foot in front of the other all day takes not just strength, but it often takes courage, and we keep on keeping on!!

      • I’m sure we could share some very interesting “ex” stories. My marriage was also in trouble before I got sick, but I was lucky enough to be in therapy so I knew that it wasn’t “all my fault.” I was also lucky enough to not have kids, so once I got the last payment on the divorce settlement from him I was able to stop all contact.

        My husband and I have been together for 8 years now, and married for 6, and he “gets” it. I think that’s partly because he’s been living with ADD since he was 8, so he understands that you can’t control your body. I’m lucky to have him in my life, and I don’t know what I would have done the last couple of years without him and our wonderful friends.

        I think you’re right about having things in common, too. You often put things in words that I feel, and when I see it, it’s like a lightbulb going off in my head. Sometimes just getting out of bed in the morning takes almost more courage than I can muster, because I know what the day is going to be like (after all, I’ve lived through it over and over again.)

        And on that note, I gotta run for now.

        Hugs – have a good one.

  3. autoimmunelife said

    I have most certainly experienced this, and continue to. It’s disgusting … it’s not our faults… in fact (not saying to do this) but you could blame our parents and families in the case of those of us who have definite genetic links for our chronic illnesses. Now, I don’t blame my parents, but the blame… definitely not on me. It’s just something that happened… not because of anything I said or did. Now, in the case of my lupus it “activated” due to UV light, but I had it long before that, I just didn’t end up truly ill until I was exposed to a lot of UV at work when they changed the lights. It’s just ridiculous for us to be blamed though. I wish we did have control over it and could just make it go away, but we can’t. 😦

    • J –

      These people just don’t “get it” at all. They don’t understand that we would do almost anything to have our health back. My “trigger” for the arthritis and fibro was the MMR vaccine, and the ex acted like I knew it would happen and got the vaccine on purpose to cause it. It was all my fault because I wanted to go back to school and the school required the vaccine for admission, and I “should have known” it would cause me to get sick.

      • autoimmunelife said

        Oh I’ve got ex and ex inlaw stories for sure. It bugs me even more since some of his family suffered from the same conditions!
        I’m thankful that over all my family gets it, of course I’m also benefiting from my mother’s fight to get people to understand when she was diagnosed while I was a teen. That does make a big difference.
        I’m so sorry to hear about your ex and all of the blame there. 😦

      • I don’t know if my family “gets it” or not, I haven’t seen or spoken to them since my mother died in 2004; but hubby and his family DO get it, so I’m good. LOL

        I really appreciate they sympathy about the ex. I don’t have to deal with his crap any more, and holding on to the anger and resentment I felt against him wouldn’t hurt anyone but me, so I let go of it when I cut off contact. (And I’ve discovered that not having contact with people who have hurt you makes it a whole lot easier to do that, since seeing them tends to stir up all those old feelings; especially when they continue to do the same things to you.)

        OMG, I just got a picture in my head of how the ex would have reacted if we’d still been together when I was diagnosed as bipolar, and nearly spit my coffee on the laptop. I can just see the look on his face when he realized he was married to a “crazy woman.” Good thing hubby’s asleep, I don’t think it would be easy to explain why I’m suddenly laughing my ass off. Thank you for that – I needed a giggle, work kinda sucked tonite.

        Hugs . .

  4. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! You nailed it.

    And as you commented on my blog the other day, the sad part is that we do it to each other, too, at least in the early stages when we’re still thinking like the able-bodied people we used to be and before we’ve been radicalized.

    • And don’t forget the “my disease is worse than yours” bunch. . . I always want to smack em and yell, “this is NOT a competition!” I saw a conversation on IRC one day, and I swear I thought they were playing poker. “I’ll see your Bipolar Disorder, and raise you a case of Reynaud’s Syndrome.” (I don’t remember the actual illnesses, but that was the impression I got from the game of “one-upmanship” they were playing.)

      • autoimmunelife said

        I have friends who apologize for complaining to me when they are having a hard day with their own illnesses because (and I”m quoting the basics of what they say) “You deal with so much every day, and I’m having a bad day but it’s nothing like what you go through” even though they go through a lot of nastiness with their health too. I always say “You know, we just have different illnesses, my bad days *may* happen more, but you are going through something that is really rough for you, don’t apologize to me or make my health seem like a bigger deal” (these are friends with fibromyalgia or different chronic illnesses… not just with a cold or whatever).
        It seems it’s always either a competition like you are talking about or else a competition where I’m worse off than them and they have no right to complain about their health because I’ve “won”… and it drives me crazy!

      • Yes! Just because you happen to be “sicker” than them doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of offering them sympathy and support, and it doesn’t mean that what they’re dealing with isn’t horrible. I think it’s part of our belief that we don’t “deserve” to be taken care of if someone else needs to be taken care of more, and our training. As women, we’re taught that WE are supposed to take care of everyone else, and nobody EVER tells us that it’s okay for us to be taken care of too. (At least, that was my experience growing up.)

      • autoimmunelife said


  5. Just checking in to see if you are doing alright sweets!
    HUGS… know that someone is thinking about you!!

    • Just freakin worn out – I had to stay late every damn nite this week because it’s been crazy, so I guess I’ll get yelled at for that AND for the shit I didn’t have time to do. Oh, well. . . at least I don’t have to go in til 5 tomorrow.

  6. Happy Valentines Day Wendy!
    I have a little surprise for you over on my blog… I hope it puts a smile on your face today!

    • Happy Valentine’s Day to you too. I found the surprise this afternoon (it actually made me a few minutes late for work cuz I was trying to get my post up before I left and I lost track of the time. LOL) Thank heavens I’m off tomorrow, this week has been HIDEOUS. My boss said that one night I actually sliced and sold $2000 worth of meat and cheese, and I believe it. I haven’t left on time once this week, and most nights I STILL had to leave without doing everything I was supposed to.

      Hugs . . .

  7. What a great read. Thanks.

    • Thank you, I’m always thrilled to hear that something I’ve written connects with someone.

      • Melody said

        It’s Was so nice to find your blog as I have lupus. Trying to get my husband to understand why I must go to so many doctors all the time is exausting . Most recently said to me tht ” my illness is draining him” as I’m not working as much . I have neuropathy in my feet also . It’s hard to explain to others just how you feel . Especially when you wake up each day with a new pain or hurt . God bless the people who understand . Melody

      • It is indeed very difficult, especially when they don’t WANT to understand. The next time he tells you your illness is draining him, remind him that YOU’RE the one that’s sick and in pain, and that you’d give anything you have to be well again. I had the same issue with my first husband, who seemed to be convinced that I’d gotten sick on purpose to cost him money and get out of doing stuff. I don’t know if it’s a “guy” thing or what, but it seems like the men are the ones who have the most trouble understanding.

  8. ladybug45 said

    I’ve had people strongly suggest that my fibro and arthritis is due to what foods I’m eating, to what I’m drinking, and how much I weigh. Some of these comments hurt. They have all the sympathy in the world for a friend of mine who is very thin and has fibro, but with me, they seem to think I brought it on myself. I have tried patiently to educate them but they are convinced they know what my problem is. It’s frustrating, like beating your head against a brick wall.

    • Yep, been there, done that. It’s hard, and it hurts, because it’s not true. That kind of attitude is part of the reason I left my ex, and part of the reason I haven’t spoken to a single member of my birth family in over 6 years. For me, cutting off my birth family was an option, for most, it isn’t. (I’ve gotten married, moved twice and had 4 different phone numbers since then, so they don’t even know where I am or what my name is now.) I’ve also gradually withdrawn from friendships with anyone who isn’t supportive and made new friends who are, so I do very little head-banging now.

  9. johnc said

    Thank you for your kind insights Wendy. Sometimes I end up blaming myself because others blame me. This piece helps me not blame myself.

    • I’m so glad it’s helped . . . it’s hard not to get sucked into the “blame game” when everyone else is blaming you. Try to remember that you didn’t CHOOSE this life, it chose you, and now YOU’RE the one that has to deal with all the crap that comes with it. They get a little of it when they have to help out, but YOU are the one that is sick and in pain, not them. (I’m actually not updating this blog any more, I’ve moved to a self-hosted blog at Come see me over there, I talk about all kinds of chronic illness issues . . .)

  10. Christy said

    Great points! I have almost lost my job over these very issues. I have certainly lost my reputation for being “reliable” and “a hard worker.” I am now penalized in my annual evaluations for “behavioral” issues–like, not making it to work because my entire body hurts. How is it people see that as “behavioral!?”

    I wonder why some people are convinced fibro, chronic fatigue, etc. are DECISIONS? I had NO sympathy given me on the job for both fibro and arthritis, but now that the stresses of continuing to plug away and keep working while having both diseases has caused me to develop congestive heart failure, there’s all kinds of solicitous behavior toward me. Unfortunately, the heart failure has caused me to have less “FIGHT” to fight with. I get the distinct feeling that I’m just a burden, now.

    • Absolutely! I dealt with the same thing when I worked at Lockheed. My boss got it, but HIS boss constantly bitched about me being sick. The stress finally pushed me into my final FMLA leave, and I wasn’t able to go back. I got the feeling that she was LOOKING for a reason to get rid of me.

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