I’ve talked about my struggle with both physical and mental health issues. I have seen more doctors in the past 5 years than most people ever see in their life. I have been bedbound and crippled by debilitating pain. I know what it’s like to be sick. I know what the emotional aspect is like as well. Because of that I’m very aware of the problems facing “sick” people. I’m not claiming to understand every illness, but I have a general understanding of the issue. I can spot glaring errors with a sick character pretty easy. I’ve read quite a few fics where the character has an illness, and it doesn’t feel believable at all.
Sometimes the writer mentions that the character has a debilitating disease, and then doesn’t mention it anywhere else in the story. If your character has a debilitating disease, it affects everything that they do in life. As an example, a friend of mine visited this weekend. We were going to go to the museum with her boys, but I was not doing well physically so I couldn’t go. And I sat for much longer than I should have because we were having so much fun, so I started to get a bit less cheery because my pain was ramping up. Then the following day I was in more pain because my joints were all flaring. I didn’t mention any of this to my friend because I didn’t want her to feel guilty because she shouldn’t. This is just something I have to deal with.
I’m not saying you need to go into full detail about a character’s illness. But you can’t say that your character has a debilitating illness and never bring it up again. I worked with cancer patients in my internship. Those with advanced cancer have horrible pain. They are on Fentanyl patches usually, which makes you really nauseated and sedated. I’m not even going into chemotherapy because those all have different side effects. Being on heavy duty opiates influences a lot of things. If you are really nauseated you don’t feel like eating. Often their nausea is so bad it’s refractory to most anti-nausea drugs. And when that happens you just want to stay in bed all day because it’s like having the flu. You can generally only keep 1-2 things down, so you’re starving, but can’t eat because you’ll just throw it up. It’s very frustrating. If you’re really sedated then you sleep a lot, and when you are awake you are pretty groggy. And pain affects people whether they want it to or not. When I’m in a lot of pain I don’t want to talk to anyone because I’m just miserable. I blast music in my ears and cry because I can’t even focus long enough to watch TV. I know for myself, some days are better than others, and you can’t always predict it.
The best advice I could give someone wanting to write a character with an illness is to research it. I think visiting blogs and reading about people’s experiences is very helpful. I’ve been reading blogs about PTSD to help me accurately portray a character that has it. Because I can’t just say a character has PTSD and then write them as a normal person. I have to get inside his head and see the world through his eyes, not my own. I think I’ll talk a bit more in another post about the emotional impact of illness because that’s a fairly complicated issue.