Thursday, November 12, 2009

Ill-labeled

H1N1 is going to be this winter's favorite flu, mostly because of its widely publicized and now well-known moniker: "Swine Flu!" I wrote an early script for a play with this title that I would like to share with you here.

Just kidding but that's actually not a bad idea...

The dark cold of winter is a cruel mistress. She drives us indoors where we cloister together around warm fires, enjoy each others' conversation at indoor gatherings, and just generally spread our infectious effluvium into the stagnant air of those around us. We remain cheerfully unaware of the invisible invaders, save a few consciously withheld handshakes with particular persons of 'ill-repute', until about a day later when everything goes downhill fast.

Your back and body ache, you've got chills and a fever, your nose is becoming awfully uncooperative, and you look like bleary-eyed death the first time you see yourself in the mirror. "Wow," a part of your brain thinks, "why do I look like this? What's this alarming anomaly called? I need to deal with this!"

Given symptoms common to the typical slew of winter bugs, it's not particularly satisfying to label a disease, a disease uniquely affecting you at this very moment, under a general category like 'the flu'. Your brain, naturally being a smart organ, thinks "Well, I can determine it's a flu-like problem and I'll treat it that way, but it would be awfully nice to get a little more specific so I can get this problem over with faster!"

Now H1N1 is undoubtedly a serious health risk for certain segments of the population, and these segments should perhaps assume the worst when sick and play it safe. However, the vast majority of people that get the swine flu won't experience symptoms particularly worse than the other antigens circulating around with it. The key distinction is that H1N1 has the brand name backing; Swine Flu and all the ills it portends dominate our instinctively fearful minds seeking answers to the simple questions above. When all your mind can think of when trying to diagnose your condition is "Swine Flu", you're hard-pressed to end up with a diagnosis that doesn't involve the term.

I suspect many people will self-diagnose themselves with Swine Flu when they get sick this winter season. In the best case they will be correct and take steps that will have additional effect in alleviating their disease. In the typical case, I suspect the self-diagnosis will be inaccurate and the treatment no more effective than the usual handling of comparable disease. However, the psychological benefit of labeling the disease is realized as long as that focused belief persists, whether labeled correctly or otherwise.

I do not fault an individual using labels to seek sympathy and mental self-assurance during a time of uncertainty. Your ill becomes your challenger. When you proclaim victory and name a well-known challenger as the defeated in the same breath, you reap the feeling of satisfaction that comes with such victories. Others, able to relate strongly to a shared fear of the same challenger, sincerely congratulate you when you announce you have conquered your condition.

You feverishly seek to know the true nature of your opponent during your battle, but once you give it form and defeat it, it doesn't matter to you whether it was really the Swine Flu or not.

One might even argue that labeling is an example of the utility of self-deception, but I wouldn't want to ruin the plot of my play.
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