By Dr. David Laing Dawson
Disease, illness, affliction, problem, atypical neurological development, eccentricity, issue, alternate reality, way of life, gift? There is no shortage of words and phrases to name and describe the nature of our struggles to cope, to live and survive in our social world. But each word conveys implications of value, worth, status, promise, expectation, and responsibility. Often these implications themselves determine which word is chosen. About once a month I am told I am about to see (in consultation) a child who has been labeled “gifted”. Whereupon I must try to find a delicate way of asking if “gifted” means Carnegie Hall by the age of 13, or brilliant at quantum mechanics but can’t relate to people, or simply learning disordered, or, careful with these words now, mentally handicapped.
Unfortunately many of the words we use, benign and descriptive at first, over time accrue negative value like small crusty accretions. There wasn’t anything wrong with “retarded” (slowed, behind) until it became an epithet in the schoolyard.
To prevent misunderstanding, but inevitably to obscure, we often fall back on what an editor friend of mine calls “weasel words”, benign enough to not offend, but careless and unhelpful. “Issue” is one of those words, as in “addiction issues”, and “mental health issues.” I don’t know why anyone would say, “He has addiction issues.” rather than, “He is addicted to heroin.” But they do. The use of “mental health issue” is easier to understand, though equally unhelpful. The speaker or journalist is trying to avoid the word “illness”, as in “He suffers from a mental illness.”
A Monty Python skit comes to mind, in which the doctor hesitates while telling his patient that he has, or suffers from, Syphilis. He gets to the word and, instead of speaking it, bends and whispers it into the open drawer of his desk. The patient doesn’t hear the word and asks the doctor to say again. In Monty Python fashion this repeats over and over until….
Actually I don’t remember the ending and I cannot find it on Youtube. But I imagine Michael Palin finally screaming the word, and a few others, at John Cleese.
We avoid the word because of the stigma attached to it, thus increasing the stigma. It was not until we openly used the word “cancer”, that we didn’t run from it, euphemize it, hide it, that it began to lose its stigma. Once free of its stigma the doors opened, research money poured in; clinics, wards, whole hospitals were devoted to helping those who suffer from cancer. The illness cancer, the disease cancer. Not the “cancer issue”.
Terry Fox did not run across Canada with a leg amputated to raise money and awareness for Bone Health Issues.