We Used to Be Just Odd… Now We?re All Sick

An old codger playing basketball. Translation into modern terms for those who need it: ?A senior following his denial of the aging process by feeding his compulsion for basketball."

Once upon a time, long ago, we were all just ordinary people. Well, some of us might have had our quirks and been teased about them, but at least we were accepted as fundamentally sound members of the human family, oddities and all.? This woman was skinny, while that one was fat.? One person in our neighborhood was known as ?loopy,? while another had graduated to being outright crazy.? The woman across the street was hot-tempered, as I recall, while her husband was known to have a strong liking for the ?sauce.?? There were the moody people, and others who shed tears profusely at any little thing that happened. Then, too, there were also those who were up-tight.

In those days we knew these people for their personal characteristics, not by their medical diagnosis. But times change, even faster than people do.? Quirks aren?t just quirks anymore; they have been dignified as medical conditions, usually with prescribed programs to treat these conditions. All of this done in politically correct fashion, of course.

That skinny woman was really anorexic, and the heavy man next door was morbidly obese.? But, fear not, modern science offers programs today that can help both.? The hot-tempered woman across the street had ?anger management issues? that she hadn?t acknowledged, but there were sessions designed for her and those like her.? The kid we called scatterbrained really had an attention deficit disorder that could be helped by Ritalin.? That smart but socially inept young man in high school, whom we knew as an egghead and later generations would have called a nerd, might have been suffering from incipient Asperger?s Syndrome.? The teary-eyed could be diagnosed as emotionally needy, while the up-tight could be categorized as emotionally repressed; neither condition was really normal.

The list goes on and on.? The tippler is presumed to be an alcoholic, just as the dotty old man can be labeled as suffering from Alzheimer?s Disease.? The person who once might have been simply termed a workhorse, even with grudging admiration, is more usually called a workaholic today.? Even the poor old fellow who?s unable to perform in bed is now suffering from erectile dysfunction.

We can be proud of the fact that we all have our medical problems today.? Our quirks have been diagnosed, and nearly each medical condition comes with a prescribed medication (sometimes a pill, sometimes a program) that will allow us to normalize our lives.? What used to be quirks or oddities are now disorders.? Thank goodness for scientific progress.

Before the rocks start flying, let me flatly state that my quarrel is not with those medical terms that hold up?eg, Alzheimer?s and alcoholism, to begin with the first letter of the alphabet. Nor do I have a problem in expanding the twelve-step programs successfully used in dealing with alcoholism to other addictions like drugs and gambling.

Still, there is a pronounced tendency in our society to medicalize just about everything that puts a person outside of ?normal.?? Not every thin woman need be termed anorexic, nor every overweight man diagnosed as having an eating disorder.? We all know heavy drinkers (at least by current standards) who could not truly be called alcoholics.

Our age is overly fond of the term addiction, a medical term, and uses it indiscriminately to apply to people with a pronounced tendency to engage in just about any activity.? I may be oversensitive on this matter, but is it fair to call anyone who works long hours and finds satisfaction in being productive a workaholic?? If so, then should the saints, who sometimes spent long hours in prayer, be diagnosed as prayeraholics?? What about a person who loves running and puts in 50 miles a week?? Is a gym rat who works out a couple hours daily an exercise-aholic?? Or, to get personal again, what do you call an old codger who still haunts the basketball court every day of the week?

What should we call persons who are compelled to ascribe a medical condition to anyone outside the range of what they considers normalcy?? There must be a diagnostic term for that. If not, why not invent one?

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About the author

Francis X. Hezel, SJ
Francis X. Hezel, SJ

Francis X. Hezel, SJ, is a Jesuit priest who has lived and worked in Micronesia since 1963. At different times he has served as high school teacher, school administrator, pastor, and regional superior to the Jesuits of Micronesia. He spent thirty years directing the Micronesian Seminar, a non-profit, non-governmental organization based in Pohnpei, Micronesia. He has written and spoken widely about social change and its impact on island societies. He has also written several books on Micronesian history, including The First Taint of Civilization, Strangers in Their Own Land, and The New Shape of Old Island Cultures. His most recent book, Making Sense of Micronesia: The Logic of Pacific Island Culture, is available through University of Hawaii Press.