Who are we, as people with ME? Are we “patients”? Are we defined by the disease and its impact on our lives? Which comes first: me or ME? This is a question of identity, and how language can bestow or limit it.
Identity is on my mind in the wake of the House of Representatives’ passage of the American Health Care Act. (Here’s a summary of why this bill is so bad for people with disabilities.) Under current US law, insurers cannot refuse coverage if you have a pre-existing condition, and they can’t jack up your premiums for it either.
But under the bill passed last week, more than 130 million non-elderly Americans with pre-existing conditions will lose the protections they have today. Within hours of the vote, Twitter and Facebook were flooded by posts with the hashtag: #IAmAPreexistingCondition. Even celebrities chimed in.
The hashtag is powerful, because it attempts to put faces to all the health problems that we have. Denying health care for pre-existing conditions is denying health care to people. But I will not say: “I am the pre-existing conditions of ME, POTS, and thyroid disease.” I have those conditions, but my health problems are not my identity.
We have to be careful and precise in choosing language. Why? Because changing one word can change the meaning of a sentence, or a protest. I
am have a pre-existing condition means I am a person with a complex identity. I am whole and complete, and my disease has not reduced me to just my need for health care. We are not a list of medical words.
We’re all prone to make mistakes with language at times, including ME allies. In describing people with ME, Llewellyn King recently wrote:
They are living a life that is a nearly intolerable to themselves and a massive burden to their loved ones, spouses, parents and caregivers. . . [ME] is vicious and debilitating, leaving the patient confined to a marginal life, a parallel and unequal existence.
I reject this description. I understand that King was trying to convey the devastating suffering of people with ME to a non-ME audience. But that quote makes me nauseous. My life is not a massive burden to my family, and my life is not marginal.
I have ME, and I am disabled. These facts do not make me less of a person. I can’t do all the things a healthy person can, but that does not make me a burden. I can’t participate in life the way I used to, but that doesn’t make my life less worth living.
Describing people as burdens, as marginal, as a list of conditions – this is ableism. Intentional or not, this language communicates that our illnesses make us less than. It reduces our identities to the diseases we have, rather than the people we are. And it tells us that a life with a disease or injury is not as valuable and worthy as a life unaffected by disease or injury. It’s reminiscent of the controversy over the film Me Before You, which romanticized the main character’s choice to kill himself because he is quadriplegic, despite his admission that he could still have a good life.
The intersection of disease and identity shifted with The Denver Principles. These principles, created by a group of AIDS activists in 1983, changed health care and how people with diseases perceive themselves. The Principles begin with a declaration:
We condemn attempts to label us as “victims,” a term that implies defeat, and we are only occasionally “patients,” a term which implies passivity, helplessness, and dependence upon the care of others. We are “People with AIDS.”
That declaration is true for everyone with a disease. We are people with a disease or a pre-existing condition or a disability. Terri Wilder taught me this when she said:
I’m not a patient 24/7 days a week. I’m a sister, friend, and daughter. I’m a person first and should be referred to as such. Using person first language is respectful and acknowledges that while ME is a part of my identity I’m not an illness and am only occasionally a patient in a medical provider’s office.
So let’s stop saying “I Am A Pre-existing Condition.” Let’s reject descriptions of ourselves that reinforce the stereotype that we are burdens, that we are marginal, that we don’t matter, that we are not people.
Because I am a person. I am a person with ME, and I deserve the same respect and consideration as everyone else. ME is a part of me, but it is not my identity. Me comes before ME.