Inflation and rising interest rates have given way to a record high of $930.6 billion in credit card debt.
I am among many people who have gone into credit card debt by spending too much on health and wellness.
Several years ago, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), which is not the same as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). IBD is classified as a chronic illness or invisible disability characterized by unpredictable and sometimes embarrassing gastrointestinal symptoms.
After my diagnosis, I started a year-long journey of meticulous self-control that led me into debt and landed me in the hospital. I did acupuncture every two weeks for a year, yoga twice a week, visited an Ayurvedic doctor, tried meditation classes and self-massage, changed my diet no fewer than seven times, added a parade of supplements to my diet, and invested in a regimen of expensive essential oils.
None of these changes were covered or subsidized by health insurance, so as a recently graduated young professional, I racked up nearly $3,000 in credit card debt.
I didn’t fully grasp or understand my diagnosis. My gastroenterologist was only willing to explain it to me regarding medications. He sent me home with a prescription for a self-injectable biologic medication (in this case, an immunosuppressant), which I learned the hard way couldn’t be filled by a traditional pharmacy because of its alarming cost. The medication also required an in-home nurse to teach me how to administer it and came with a long list of side effects—some of them potentially life-threatening. Upon learning this, I was overwhelmed.
Having grown up in a culture of healthism–defined by moralistic discourses that pressured me to take control of my health through wellness programs–I was skeptical and fearful of pharmaceutical intervention. So, I panicked. I reached out to family, friends, and colleagues to find out if anyone in my immediate circle knew someone with Crohn’s disease who I could talk to and learn from. Unfortunately, disclosing my diagnosis in this capacity initiated my spiral into control.
From that moment forward, I have been bombarded with endless suggestions for managing (or even “cure,” as some people naively suggest) my Crohn’s disease. I was scared, vulnerable, and indoctrinated into an ideology of healthism that made me believe if I didn’t try everything I could before resorting to prescription medication, I would be the problem—lazy and irresponsible. So, at first, I leaned into everyone’s suggestions.
We are increasingly engulfed by healthism, which has tricked us into believing that our health is our responsibility and largely within our control. Every time a health magazine promotes control as self-care or a news site equates control with fitness, they promote healthism. While these messages might seem benign or even benevolent, they’ve created a dangerous moral expectation that people should take control of their health at all costs. This expectation has profound economic, physiological, and psychological impacts.
Even worse than the credit card debt, the accumulated stress of constant control over my health habits caused such severe Crohn’s inflammation that I developed a stricture in my intestine so small only food as narrow as a piece of spaghetti could pass through. I stopped tolerating solid food and had to go on a liquid diet for over two months until I needed urgent surgery to remove the inflamed portion of my small intestine. I lost almost 25 lbs. in a year, dropping below 100 lbs., which increased the risks of surgery and jeopardized my ability to heal effectively post-op.
Through this experience, I literally learned how to let go of control. As a professor of communication, I switched my research agenda to health and immersed myself in literature on control, agency, and autonomy, particularly within the context of gendered health care contexts. I learned about all of the cultural and systemic factors that impact health, which any individual cannot control, and I learned about biomedicine’s many shortcomings and strengths. This knowledge helped me retrain my brain. I now understand the complexities of health, recognize the limits of all forms of treatment, and, most importantly, see through the façade of healthism.
I’m sure there are people who tried all of the same things I did and ended up with different results. That’s part of the complexity of health; it’s different for everyone.
After surgery, I started a biologic medication and I’ve been in clinical remission for almost five years. I eat what I want; I do yoga when I want, and I live most days pain-free, all with the support of my doctor and the financial backing of my health insurance plan. This is not an endorsement of any particular form of treatment though; it’s quite the opposite.
If there is one thing I hope people will take away from my experience, it is this: the only thing we can control, and should control, is our judgment of each other’s health. We need to stop moralizing health. We need to stop encouraging people to make choices about their health under the banner of “right” and “wrong.” We need to allow people to be both active and passive in their pursuit of health. We must end the social pressures costing us all too much.
Kristen L. Cole is an assistant professor of communication studies.