Yesterday, I was relaxing in the hot tub at my gym. I had just completed an hour of strenuous water movement class, and my body was like WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO ME…so the hot tub was an essential relaxing moment. The usual gang of fellow classmates was there—women, like me, who take the class because it’s accessible despite physical limitations.

What you need to know is, everyone else in the hot tub was a solid 20 years older than me. And that’s all good. We’re all in it together. (I mean, literally in it!)

But yesterday, a woman I’ve never spoken with before turned away from a group conversation about chronic pain and illness and said to me: “This is what you have to look forward to when you’re old.”

Sigh. I hate these conversations. I’m not sure what the goal is of someone who says that. Are they trying to freak me out about my future? Sorry, babe, I’m not that easily scared. Are they feeling awkward because they’re leaving me out of a group conversation, and somehow trying to explain why? But in a backhanded way? I don’t know. I can’t understand the benefit of ever saying that phrase to someone.

I know I look younger than I am; no one ever guesses I’m in my mid-40s. And I’m the young one in the class usually, so I stick out. But still: There’s no need to single me out.

An awkward conversation

Anyway, I took a breath and started my usual spiel: “Actually, I’ve had chronic pain and illness since I was 25, so your conversation is familiar to me. No need to explain.”

Her: “But you’re so young! You were diagnosed when you were 25? Oh, that’s so horrible! I’m so sorry.”

Me: “Thanks, but no need for sorries. I’ve worked it out and actually made a life for myself in spite of it, and I’m proud of my work.” I described ChronicBabe, which she seemed to find fascinating:

Her: “Oh, you’ve really made lemonade out of lemons! Good for you! But I’m so sorry.”

Me: “Really, no sorries necessary. By the way, what’s your name?” We introduced ourselves, and then I said: “Of course, you can always just call me ChronicBabe if you forget my name.”

Her: “Oh, no, I could never.” She looked down. She got uncomfortable. She started to climb out of the hot tub. 

Me: “Okay, nice talking to you. Have a great day!”

Her: Grumble grumble awkwardly departs.

Is it generational?

Sigh. I think maybe it is; I talked to my physical therapist about it today, and she reminded me that people a couple decades older than me were raised to not speak about their health issues, so perhaps while she found my work inspiring, she was uncomfortable saying words that referred to my health.

Is it just plain awkward?

Or maybe it’s just general awkwardness or embarrassment, when a person realizes they’ve “othered” someone—singled them out, only to find out they’re not so different after all.

Is it getting old?

Heck yeah! I’m going on 20 years of this crap, and I’m tired of people older than me either dismissing my experience because “I won’t really understand until I’m older” or because they can’t believe someone so young can have such serious health issues. I’m really tired of conversations in which we try to separate from each other, instead of uniting in our shared experiences. And I’m really friggin’ tired of people dismissing my work as something “cute” or “niche.” One in three women in this country live with chronic pain, and a significant portion of women live with chronic illness. Many of us have both. So this work is not small, or cute, or niche. It’s essential. And my experience is real, and legitimate, and stop treating me like I’m a cute little kid and patting me on the head.

I don’t mean to yell at you…

It’s not you, dear reader, that I struggle with. It’s the people I encounter day to day who lay this trip on me. I bet you experience it, too!

So, how do we respond?

Sometimes, it’s gonna be really tough to do this…but you’ve got to respond with a smile. Don’t apologize or minimize your experience; be clear that, in fact, you share their experience and you’re learning to live well in spite of your health issues. Be an example. Show them what a ChronicBabe is.

Answer their questions. Encourage them to check out your favorite resource. Remind them that life doesn’t happen on a schedule; some of us experience adversity when we’re young, and we’re stronger because of it.

And then release. Seriously…don’t do what I did yesterday, which was to hold on to irritation all day. I already had a handful of stressors in my day, and I didn’t need to hang out to her awkwardness all day…and yet I did. Don’t be like me.

Get out there and represent the #ChronicBabe life, my friend. That’s the best way to handle these conversations. And promise yourself that you will never, ever say “This is what you have to look forward to when you’re old” to anyone. Because you never know what they’re dealing with.