• Podcaster Tracie Morrissey has accused Jameela Jamil of making up her chronic conditions. (Getty Images North America)Source: Getty Images North America
The accusation we are 'faking it' for attention and sympathy is one that chronically ill people battle in day-to-day life.
Stephanie Anderson

19 Feb 2020 - 2:55 PM  UPDATED 20 Feb 2020 - 1:06 PM

Recently, writer and podcaster Tracie Egan Morrissey went viral for claiming that The Good Place actress Jamil Jamil had munchausens syndrome - a disorder where a person asserts to have an illness they do not have to gain sympathy.

The original, now-deleted tweet that went viral on Twitter had screengrabs from Morrissey’s Instagram story highlight about the actress. 

From there, social media was abuzz with the sweet smell of cancellation. Jamil vehemently denied the allegations of munchausens or that she’d lied about her health, tweeting and DM'ing back and forth with Morissey over the weekend. Jamil’s partner James Blake and best friend Scarlett Curtis both posted statements slamming the allegations.

During a public exchange on Twitter, Jamil stated that one of Morrissey’s allegations — that a story about a car accident had changed drastically over the years as she’d told it and re-told it in different interviews — was actually about two separate car accidents.

As a person who’s been suffering from complex chronic pain conditions since 2010 and is also incredibly clumsy, this particular clarification stuck out to me. I fractured my left elbow in 2012, and I shattered my right elbow’s radial head last February. Both incidents were on their way into music events, and both times, I finished out the evening before seeking medical help because hey, if it was broken, it would still be broken in the morning, and chronic pain gives you a very high tolerance for acute pain.

What does matter, and what does hurt people, is a culture that promotes and is excited by the prospect of cancelling women because they don’t look sick in the way that a healthy person might expect them to.

If I were in Jamil’s position, how easy would it be for someone to confuse and conflate these two separate, but similar events into one and then claim that I was exaggerating or falsifying the story?

How easy would it be to declare that I have munchausens simply because I “don’t look sick”, because I smile on my Instagram? Because I can’t always explain my chronic illnesses (which include endometriosis, central nervous sensitisation, IBS and PMDD, along with depression and anxiety). Sometimes these conditions give me a brain fog that makes it hard to recall things quickly, to speak eloquently, to find the right words to explain what’s going on inside my body.

When the tweet about Jamil first went viral, Morrissey also had a now-deleted Instagram story highlight titled ‘munchausens’, in which she accused Lena Dunham, Yolanda Hadid, Jessie J, and Sia of having munchausens, and stated that “anyone claiming to have Ehlers–Danlos syndrome is a red flag” for munchausens, a statement she doubled-down on in a tweet.

For me, and for many others who struggle with complex and chronic invisible illnesses, this narrative - that people who don’t perform illness in a way that ‘makes sense’ to healthy, able-bodied people aren’t actually sick, or are faking or exaggerating their symptoms for attention and sympathy - is one we battle every day. 

We deal with it at work, covering up our exhaustion with make-up and a smile, trying not to cry when it takes three times as long to finish a simple task because our brains or bodies aren’t co-operating. We deal with suspicion from bosses and colleagues when we try to explain how our illnesses work or when we have to take a sick day when we looked fine the day before. 

We deal with it in social situations, when we find ourselves having to cancel at the last minute, giving the impression that we never really wanted to attend in the first place. We deal with it, when we try to explain that while there are times when we can push through the pain, there are also times when it wins the battle of the day and we’re unable to get out of bed.

We also deal with it when we seek treatment. There are  plenty of articles online that discuss the sexism women face from doctors, who take women’s pain less seriously, dismissing them and their pain as being exaggerated or in their heads. Along with a fractured medical system that sees very little communication between different specialists, and time constraints put on regular GP appointments forcing doctors to find the quickest solution, rather than taking a complete health history, which could point to bigger issues at play, women with complex chronic illnesses often fall through the cracks while trying to find a diagnosis and pain management approach that will work for them.

I should know. It took me nine and a half years to get diagnosed with endometriosis, despite seeing eight gynaecologists - three of whom were also pain specialists.

Women with chronic pain have a hard enough time finding the care they need without also having to worry about being accused of faking it.

What does matter, and what does hurt people, is a culture that promotes and is excited by the prospect of cancelling women because they don’t look sick in the way that a healthy person might expect them to.

By declaring that these women have munchausens, by questioning the validity of their illnesses, Morrissey has contributed to a culture of ableism that tells people to question women’s pain, that calls women liars, and that oppresses the chronically ill.

It reinforces the stigma that we are not to be believed, that our pain is not to be believed, and that our real chronic illnesses are nothing more than smoke and mirrors, designed to get us attention and sympathy, meant to be questioned, “exposed” and gossiped about.

Women with chronic pain have a hard enough time finding the care they need without also having to worry about being accused of faking it.

Stephanie Anderson is a freelance writer covering pop culture and chronic pain. You can follow Stephanie on Twitter  at @stefinitely85 and Instagram.

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