The Phoenix Zine

Coming Out of the Closet: Debriefing Others on Your Chronic Illness Doesn’t Have to be a Military Operation


When it comes to talking to others about my chronic illness, I’m always on guard. Similar to the U.S. Military’s system of defense readiness conditions (DEFCON), I have my own defcon system that activates when I am approached by people who inquire about my illness.

It happens all the time, a well-meaning, near stranger whom I only know through my parents or an acquaintance from school or work who knows about my illness comes up to me and asks the timeless question with a special look of concern on their face: “How are you doing?”

Immediately my guard goes up. If I’m talking to a person I barely know, it’s not likely I’m about to divulge any details of my illness, and yet, a simple answer of “fine” is not always sufficient in such a situation. Thus, I upgrade from defcon 5 (normal mode) into defcon 4 before I answer.

The word ‘fine’ is grossly inadequate to describe how I’m feeling or doing. Although ‘fine’ is my automatic answer to deflect the question I don’t want to answer, life is complicated, and rare is the time when the word ‘fine’ accurately describes how I’m doing. However, ‘fine’ is the perfect word to use when assessing those who really want to know how I’m doing and those who are only asking to be polite.

For those who are only being polite, this answer is satisfactory. I give my one word answer and they disengage, averting a crisis once again. If, however, the person remains in my path, looking unsatisfied, I upgrade from defcon 4 into defcon 3 and reassess the intruder.

Deciding whether or not the person is someone I feel is trustworthy and deserves a higher intelligence clearance is tricky. Generally I determine a person’s intelligence clearance by those who seem like they genuinely care about how I’m doing or may offer empathy because I know they’ve been in a similar situation.

However, what I’ve learned through my battle experience is some people act like they genuinely care only because they want to be the person in the know, so they can tell others what the latest intelligence on my illness is. In essence, spies.

Then there are people I assume will be understanding and empathetic, those who have had either personal or peripheral experience with illness. Unfortunately, I’ve learned the hard way that not every soldier has the same experience of war. Some come home with post-traumatic stress disorder, and others are able to simply put the experience behind them and go on with their lives as if it didn’t happen.

Once I have reassessed, I then determine my next course of action. For those I feel are not a threat, I back down to defcon 4 and discuss what has recently been happening in my life, my latest doctor’s appointment or my new diet. If the response is empathetic and interested, I return to defcon 5 and note to myself that the person I’m talking to is a friend, not an intruder or a spy.

If I perceive the person as a threat to my security, then defcon 2 is engaged and my first priority is to remove myself from the situation swiftly and without revealing anything. Sometimes this is achieved through distraction, either someone else comes along or the person turns their head for a second and I take the opportunity to practice my camouflage skills by disappearing in a crowd of people.

I’ve never reached defcon 1, probably because I am extremely skilled in diverting attention from myself. Being able to camouflage yourself is not just about avoiding drawing visual attention to yourself, but it’s also about deflecting such attention when you can’t avoid it.

Over the years I’ve perfected the art of the short answer and the quick return question. In this manner, I encourage people to talk about themselves, and make them forget they ever asked me a question in the first place.

Such a talent has benefits and drawbacks. It takes me a long time to tell people I consider to be friends about my medical issues. One friend recently told me she was shocked when I finally told her about my extensive medical history, because I had never given any indication of it before telling her straight out.

Wary of others’ reactions of pity, judgement, or indifference, I prefer to not give them a chance to react rather than open myself up to the chance of a hurtful reaction. My defcon system has been developed over many years of finding myself in battles I had not anticipated. A well-tuned defensive system became what I used to protect my thin-skin so I would not be caught off guard again.

But I am not a military officer, I am a young woman. And I am not protecting a country from potential military threats, I am trying to protect myself from getting hurt. Eleanor Roosevelt, a woman who was married to the military leader of the United States once said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

I don’t think I’ll ever become a person who feels comfortable talking about the specifics of my illness and life with near strangers, but with my friends intel about my life should not be treated like a military secret.

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