Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Seven Deadly Sins . . . of a long-term health condition

I listened to an interesting discussion on Radio 4 Women's Hour with Jenny Murray about the seven deadly sins and their relevance to modern society. Having been created in the fifth century by a male Pope, they were questioning how much they still apply to us today. As they listed the seven sins, I found myself thinking that they all had particular relevance to me, living with long term health conditions.

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things (Hieronymous Bosch)
These emotions were thought to have been evolutionary beneficial, but there is now a general consensus that they are not actually useful. Having done several courses of CBT and counselling, I have begun to realise that these so-called negative emotions can be either harmful and impact on functioning or necessary and natural - a difficult balance! Some can even have positive effects, so I don't know if I would consider them all "sins" per se!

So here are the Seven Deadly Sins, according to a patient with long-term health conditions. . . .

Greed - at first I didn't think this came into my experience, but thinking about it a bit more and the wider context of society, I think we can all be accused of greed when it comes to precious NHS resources! I am greedy in the sense of always wanting more time with doctors, more information, more money spent on research for my conditions, more services for me . . . I think my greed is natural and also healthy - a hunger for information and time to help me help myself. Perhaps it's the rare nature of my conditions that make my greed for resources more marked, but I do believe everyone would experience the same emotion if they were in these shoes!

Wrath - this emotion is certainly there after any phone call to my consultants secretary, most appointments or hospital letters! I find my self angry when on bad days, I have to miss out on things I'd rather not. I resent having to spend my spare time collecting prescriptions, going to appointments, chasing doctors, being a patient doing patient things. But this emotion, in the context of navigating the NHS system is, I think, quite important! I need a certain level of emotional motivation to keep battling the system to get tests, appointments and answers. Although something I know this emotion actually inhibits my functioning, I think if I can channel it into motivation to keep fighting, then it is doing some good!

Gluttony - do I eat and drink in excess? Well, I have to drink over 2l a day according to the doctors so yes (but its only water, and for medical reasons, so does that make it ok?!), and I defy anyone not to eat an entire packet of chocolate with the emotions that accompany a long-term health conditions! I am saved from this sin though every time I go into hospital thanks to hospital food, which in the eyes of that fifth century Pope must also be a blessing too?!

Sloth - fatigue is a big feature in daily living for many people with long term health conditions. my conditions are no exception, and I battle daily with myself about whether to rest or whether I just want to stop because I am lazy and using my health as an excuse! Everyone is entitled to lazy days every now and again, but when I am so afraid of others labelling my health condition as just pure laziness, it is difficult to let your self have one of those days just as difficult as it is to have a quiet day for medical reasons!!!

Pride - some successful counselling has taught me to give myself permission to feel pride in myself- I feel proud to say I have pride in myself and my achievements. BC (Before Conditions) my pride lay I getting into the top medical school in the country and various university sporting achievements - I set the bar pretty high for myself, by anyone's standards. Now AD (After Diagnosis) my pride lies in much smaller things, which by others standards are not very high at all, but they are things which carry far more significance and have taken far more effort and personal resources to achieve. I don't count pride as a sin I am afraid! In fact, it is a vital skill to learn!

Lust - don't even get me started on what compression stockings do for your sex life! Not much! However many issues are created around intimacy with a health problem, I am still human and still have human desires, but I would by lying if said they hadn't been damped a bit on occasions by the health conditions and everything associated. Maybe this the one benefit of a long term health condition in the eyes of a fifth century Pope?! One sin I am not 100% guilty of!

Envy - I am very slowly learning that the grass is not always greener on the other side, but it isn't the quickest learning curve! I envy people jumping off trains without sticks, cushions, orthotics etc. just looking chic with a small handbag. I envy people for their clothes, their houses, their jobs, their figures, their health, their relationships, their attitude, their personality, their skills, their lifestyle. . . . And I am the first one to it my hand up and say that this is neither productive or beneficial in any way! When thinking of envy, I am often reminded of what someone once said to me: "everyone was envious of you once a time, with everything you had and were doing . . . Not many people would be envious of you in the same way now would they!" It shows that things change, and it quite true!


Whilst the above are traditionally recognised as the seven  deadly sins, the following are sometimes recognised as sins too. For us, the seven sins are more likely to include these instead of lust and gluttony, I think? I think these are particularly relevant in my case (and I am sure/hope I am no alone!):

Shame - I experience shame of several things, but it is hard to distinguish from guilt. The best article exploring shame in relation to illness is found on the A Better NHS blog. For me, guilt, is a frequent emotion and issue: feeling guilty of my parents having to have me live at home; drive me when I can't; feed and wash me when I can't; guilt I have to make complicated plans in order to see any friends with them having to go out of their way to see me; my lifestyle limitations limiting my boyfriend and causing him emotional upset; guilt I can't work full time; guilt I take up scarce NHS resources (I am aware the later is a contradiction of the greed above, but such is the dichotomy of all these emotions!). . . . . The list goes on!


Vanity - I have cancelled meetings and coffee with friend out of embarrassment of my stick, and frequently fear the scar from a potential operation the doctors mention. Illnesses really do impact how you look - I feel pale, un-toned and self-conscious of my weak arms. I would be lying if I said my conditions had not brought out at times my vain side (which I didn't really know I had!). Sometimes this is really not useful or helpful, but I have felt particularly empowered to have overcome aspects of it since the Paralympics. I am not saying I have totally come to terms with it, and still have my vain moments, but I learning to be less vain! Having said that, a degree of vanity is a sign that I have not totally given up and become stuck in my PJs!

A lot of the above are, I think, quite normal emotions considering the situation, and also emotions we may not have thought we had, but I guess illness can bring out the worst . . . and best . . . in us!?

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