Without your health, you have...

Monday, December 14, 2015
Michelle Roger

Meme that reads 'Without your health you have nothing' with 'nothing' crossed out

My neighbour's growling four-wheel drive reverses past our headboard. Thin walls and a driveway less than a metre from our bedroom negating any need for an alarm clock. Pavlovian instinct kicks in triggering my first curse of the morning. An unsteady hand extends from the covers. Sausage fingers stabbing at the screen turning off flight mode. If I squint and close one eye I can mostly deal with the little flashing light. The phone vibrates and messages by the dozen begin to arrive. It's too early. Pre-caffeinated me can't process that level of interaction. I swipe aimlessly through time lines. Past cat videos, music videos, heavier news stories. And then a meme catches my eye.

Without your health, you have nothing.

My sleep addled brain can't quite process the message. I shake my head and scroll back to the picture. A woman stands triumphant, well-toned arms raised above her blonde head in a sun-kissed wilderness, white Georgia font in bold. I read it again.

Without your health, you have nothing.

It leaps from the screen and stops me still.

Without your health, you have nothing.

I look at it again and feel my body tense. My broken and breaking, health-free body. Even in my mouth-breathing, drooling state I can conjure up some choice expletives.

I look at the increasing number of likes and shares. The “Ra Ra motivational” speal written above the picture grates.

Without your health you have nothing.

Taken as truth and perpetuated in shares. The message spreads like an infection through the ether as followers find motivation and inspiration in the simplistic words. The underlying judgement begins to fester amongst the followers as comments multiply about those who are somehow the cause of their malady or disability, and how they couldn't bear a life like that.

I read it again. And feel my anger rise.

If accepted as truth, I have always had nothing. My “constitution of a wet tissue” as my father was want to say, belying even the pretence of health in any portion of my life.

And now?

Now I am living with illness and disability 24/7. Year after year. With full knowledge that it will never resolve. Health is not to be mine, not now. Not before. And not in the future.

Is my life to this point a collection of nothingness?

As I continue to be ill and my disability increase, is nothingness all I have to look forward to?

Without your health you have nothing.

The meme on the screen before me states as fact that which is a lie.

A lie perpetuated in a society that seeks perfection at every level. Whatever that is? Perfection. An arbitrary guideline created by those who would 'other'. Those who have products and ideologies to sell.

Such sentiments reek of health privilege. They reek of false lessons, false security and small ideas. "I have my health," is the new statement of prestige and success. Up there with a new BMW, or a mansion in Toorak.

The ill and disabled become inspirational for simply breathing, because others cannot understand how we continue on in a such a state of constant nothingness.

Advertising campaigns contrast the bright lights of health with the grey world of illness. They see joy vs despair. Friend vs Enemy. The Good vs Bad. A moral argument that is transposed upon those whom illness calls. And so we are told, "without your health, you have nothing."

Avoidance of illness at all costs. If you become ill and disabled you have not tired hard enough to avoid the nothingness. You must be judged. You should judge yourself. Bludger. Lazy. Worthless.

My broken body is held up as both warning and object of scorn. I am the reminder they work hard to forget.

But no amount of simplistic memes and soft lit backgrounds can erase the truth.

Illness doesn't care. It doesn't care if you run 10km everyday. It doesn't care if you only eat organic. Or have never smoked or consumed alcohol. It doesn't care if you help old ladies across the street or kick kittens for fun. Good, bad or indifferent. Illness happens. Disability happens. Life happens. Genes can kick in, or accidents can occur.

Yet we have so demonised the idea of illness and disability that we fear and judge those who live with them. We see the end of the world. The “I could never live like that”. And in turn the “if only you'd done this, that, or the other.”

Is it then truly surprising that people fall apart when illness and disability come their way? No wonder they struggle. We are so ill prepared for the concept of a fallible body, that we are suddenly thrust into a world of nothingness. Of no hope. Of fear. Of helplessness and hopelessness. We have no skills, no training. Illness is so alien, so other, that we cannot conceive a way through it or a way to live with it. We have failed ourselves in our self-indulgent belief that we have control over the fickleness of life. In turn we have created failure. Where in truth none exist. Sometimes shit happens. But, more importantly, we continue on, often fantastically on, when it does.

1 in 5 people live with disability. I in 2 live with a chronic illness. Are we to believe that all these people are living lives of nothingness? That lives of worth, are the province of the able-bodied alone?

Such a belief does a disservice to us all.

This notion of morality and value is something we have created and in turn something we can change. If we have the courage to move beyond puerile slogans and embrace the infinite beautiful variety that is life.

I don't live in nothingness.

And I don't live despite my illness. I simply live. No caveats needed. I live a life of possibilities and joy. A vibrant, fulfilling and worthy life.

I don't have my health. I have never, and will never, have my health.

And despite what a lie-filled, and promptly deleted, meme would suggest,

I have always had my everything.

About Michelle Roger

Michelle Roger was a Write-ability Fellow in 2014. She was a guest speaker at the Write-ability Salon (Nothing About Us, Without Us) at The Wheeler Centre in December 2015.

This commission is supported by the City of Melbourne 2015 Arts Grants Program. Write-ability is a partnership between Writers Victoria and Arts Access Victoria.


This article made me cry. For nearly twelve years I have been addicted to regaining my health. I realised last year that the so called chronic disease I've been blessed with is the best thing that ever happened to me. Like you, I have a vibrant, fulfilling and worthy life.
However, I am still trying to fix the disease. Why?
Do I want to be like everyone else? Or do I want to be free? Your words have changed me.
Thanks Michelle

Many years ago a young man fell down some stairs, broke his neck. Not dead, but quadriplegic. Months in the spinal unit, then home to his lovely wife, for her to begin her career as a full-time carer. For 5 years I visited him as his GP, until he was able to move one hand enough to operate an electric scooter and he could make his way to the surgery. Then one day he came, scooted, in, and I said to him, "How are you going?", and his answer was, "Couldn't be better". And I looked at him and I thought, you need someone to feed you, someone to move you in and out of a chair, or bed, someone to dress and undress you, someone else has to do pretty much everything for you, even help empty your bowels; yet this was your honest answer. Couldn't be better.

Great article, Michelle, spot-on.

Well said Michelle!!!!!!

This piece really hit home for me. It is true that people that are fit and healthy just don't get it. I watch people jogging or even walking quickly and think how much those skills are taken for granted by people who have their health. I think that I was guilty of such thoughts when I was young and healthy, and asked questions such as why do people wish you good health. Now I know.
I was diagnosed 5 years ago with Multiple Myeloma, an incurable blood cancer which weakens bones, lowers your immune system and causes almost constant fatigue Coming to terms with going from a sports loving and active person is hard to come to terms with. Gone are the days of rowing, golf and long walks. One has to reinvent ones life and work out what you can do. Pacing yourself is important as it should be for everyone. So there are positives. I have a different perspective on what's important in life, I have changed my priorities and I think I have become calmer and live in the moment, not worrying about the past or even the future. Enjoy the now. But I agree that people that are healthy almost seem to think that we have done something to deserve this and should be doing something to fix it. If only we could.

Thank you Michelle, for sharing your insights. Yes, there is a prevailing misconception about what constitutes a "healthy" life. When most people speak of "keeping fit", they tend to mean working out in gyms, jogging, or playing sports, yet wilfully neglect their minds. Never mind that their imaginations might have become flabby with cliches and platitudes! A truly healthy person, I suggest, is one who cultivates aesthetic sensibilities. This could involve reading literature and listening to music. Or visiting a gallery (if not through physical travel, then watching documentaries of art history). Some might learn a language, or attend an oral storytelling workshop. Others might create a soulful garden, chimes, amulets, soy candles, glass sculpture or a marvellous quilt. Surely artistic cultivation matters more than staying taut and trim? I write this with personal experience of disability within our family and inner circles, with impairments that include psychotic depression, anxiety and post traumatic stress disorder. It constantly astonishes me how mental illness is misconstrued. Rather than valuing our sensitivity, embracing our empathy, or viewing reclusiveness as an opportunity for reading and contemplation, society offloads us as burdens. If we can no longer contribute to an ethos of ruthless efficiency, competition, vanity and greed, perhaps it's because we represent a greater, not lesser, form of humanity? We are not nothing. We might even be more than something.

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