The Virus Diaries: Gaslighting

March 21, 2020 at 1:33 pm (Fully Sick, general life, Mental illness, Mum Stuff)

If you haven’t heard the term before, “gaslighting” means convincing someone that they’re crazy, irrational, or mistaken. In its original form, that means changing a person’s environment without their knowledge. I’m talking mainly about the ‘fear versus safety’ dynamic currently playing out in every family and school and workplace right now. There are four factors that make gaslighting particularly potent (and deadly) during a pandemic.

1. Germs are invisible.

Seeing is believing, and that makes it really hard to take the coronavirus seriously. It’s particularly tricky because the symptoms are so similar to a cold or an ordinary flu (both of which are a big part of normal life and no big deal unless you live in a nursing home) AND a significant portion of people are transmitting the virus while having no symptoms whatsoever.

2. The most concerned people aren’t the ones we like to listen to.

Coronavirus hits the elderly and the immunocompromised the hardest, and our capitalist society puts very little value on those groups. It’s a harsh truth, and at the moment it’s a deadly one.

Look, I’ll be honest. It feels a lot less tragic to lose a 90 year-old than a 9 year-old. Their lives are of equal value, but one of them has a lot more of it left than the other. I understand that. I also understand that older people (NOT all of them) have a reputation for being morally behind the times—racist, sexist, etc—and it’s tempting to think that losing a higher proportion of older folk might mean an overall gain in human rights, as younger people are more likely (again, not all of them) to vote in a moral than a purely self-motivated way. It’s an interesting argument in part because of how utterly awful and immoral it is, and from the supposedly “moral” side of politics too.

I literally heard people talking recently `about how the world would be better with less old people in it. That is not okay. Not now, not ever.

Old people are undervalued in our society. Let’s not be awful people about this, okay? Please?

Now (*rolls up sleeves*) let’s talk about the other major invisible group in our society: the disabled and chronically ill, most of whom are immunocompromised or otherwise vulnerable (eg dependent on other people) in a hundred different ways. I’ve mentioned I have fibromyalgia and diabetes (among other conditions). The death rate for diabetics who contract COVID-19 is currently around 10%. That’s a whole lot better than, say, a 50/50 chance of survival, but it also means that if I get this, there’s a one in 10 chance I will literally die from it. That’s not cool!

Fibromyalgia is one of the most annoying conditions in the world. Allow me to describe it in two different ways:

a) Fibromyalgia is a disease of the nervous system that affects 2-5% of the population of developed countries (including Morgan Freeman). Because it’s based in the nervous system, it causes widespread muscle pain, migraines, muscle twitches, joint pain, and depression. Some people are able to function despite their fibromyalgia. Others (like me) are permanently disabled. There is no cure.

b) Fibromyalgia is a ‘wastebasket diagnosis’ given to people—mostly overweight and clinically depressed women—who complain of widespread pain but show no physical signs.

Can you spot the difference? Which do you think is a more accurate description—the one that makes it sound like a genuine disability, or the one that makes it sound like feeble-minded fatties are whining about imaginary issues?

A lot of “invisible illnesses” (migraines, depression, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome) cause sufferers to get an extra level of issues due to people struggling to believe their conditions are real. Yes, a lot of people are just awful (especially when one tries to get some kind of financial support—immediate family members and Centrelink are sometimes wonderful but often the greatest gaslighters in the world) but I do understand that our minds instinctively shy away from long-term pain in others. It’s hard for me personally to hold onto the fact that Australia keeps innocent children in offshore detention in order to shirk our international responsibilities and to deliberately aim to get a reputation for cruelty. Aren’t we the good guys? Surely there MUST be a good reason, or it’s not as bad as it sounds, or something?

In the same way, it’s hard for people to accept that another innocent person is going to suffer physically and financially for the rest of their lives. So it’s natural, in a way, to choose not to believe that fibromyalgia (or whatever) is actually real. Or if it is real, then it’s natural to believe that’s it’s not really as bad as people say. Or if it is that bad, then it’s natural to believe that the sufferer must surely be able to do something to fix it. (Which is where you get doctors telling people to lose weight for EVERY condition imaginable, even though studies show that dieting does more harm than good and that it’s possible fibromyalgia actually causes the weight gain in the first place.)

All of which is to say that people like me, with chronic health issues, are often treated like we’re irrational even when we’re not. (I could tell a hundred painful and shocking stories of family members and/or medical people simply choosing to believe that fibromyalgia isn’t real. At all.) Our suffering is not respected. So when we hear, “Don’t worry about COVID-19! Healthy people will be fine!” we hear, “Only worthless people will die—and lots of them! So THAT’S fine.”

And of course when chronically ill people say, “This is serious. We’re dying!” simple denial comes into play and there’s a knee-jerk response of, “I shall not live in fear! I shall take my family out to a crowded restaurant and encourage others to do the same!” Plus of course, the knee-jerk anger response: how dare chronically ill people—already a burden on the taxpayer, the slackers!—so callously disregard the needs of The Economy.

And yes, the economy matters. People suffer when the economy suffers. I’ve personally lost several thousand dollars of a pathetically small income already, and there are MANY others in much worse positions.

So, it’s complicated. Which makes gaslighting easier.

And of course there’s a certain number of people who are already fond of disregarding any scientist. It’s become a matter of pride. Which is, obviously, dumb. All the more so because skepticism is associated with intelligence and sometimes (often) it just… isn’t. But when people’s in-group, or sense of their own intelligence, or general identity gets tied up with “skepticism at all costs”… it’s a very hard thing to stop.

3. Fear isn’t fun. Brave is fun.

Writers all know that a story must centre around an interesting and ACTIVE protagonist. Because no-one likes solving a problem by doing nothing. That applies to both fiction and real life. It’s surprisingly hard to sit at home and do nothing (or work from home, or home-school kids), and soon a person starts feeling stupid and wants to do something active. So instead of fighting the virus, we start fighting the associated anxiety. We prioritise normality and the economy and Not Living In Fear rather than doing the less-glamorous thing—staying home.

4. I can’t remember what my fourth point was. Darn it. I’ll edit it in when I do.


In summary, don’t give in to fear, but do change something you can change, whether it’s self-isolating your entire family or just washing your hands for longer than you used to.

Resource of the day:

A video running the classic “powder that glows under UV light” experiment. It’s quite fun and kid-friendly (except for a couple of seconds of people fighting over toilet paper). Also it goes for ten minutes so that’s ten minutes of home schooling done for the day. Don’t watch it if you have obsessive-compulsive tendencies.

Recommended donation of the day:

Oxfam is a great poverty-oriented charity. You know anyone poor always suffers when things get worse around them, so help Oxfam help them. It’s super easy to make a one-off donation.

Recommended personal action of the day:

Wash your hands. It’s an oldie but a goodie. Twenty seconds, with soap and lots of rubbing.

Recommended hoarding item of the day:

Puzzles. Gotta have something to do, amirite?


  1. The Virus Diaries: Welcome to Pain, Healthy People | crazy talk said,

    […] wrote quite a bit about the weird mental uncertainty of this COVID-19 moment in my gaslighting post, and it was natural to talk about fibromyalgia there too. One of the surprising bits of the chronic […]

  2. The Virus Diaries: Aftermath | crazy talk said,

    […] and of course a lot of people around me are saying, “Are you SURE you NEED it?” (That Gaslighting entry just keeps popping up, doesn’t […]

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