On Cure Evangelism

Note: This post was written primarily with nondisabled readers in mind.

Cure evangelism is a scourge which seems unlikely to vanish any time soon, so we may as well address it and have a little chat about what it is, why it is problematic, and what you, personally, can do about it. This is not just a problem which affects people with disabilities. Fat folks are often subjected to a form of cure evangelism from people who believe that fat is something which needs to be (and can be) cured, for example, and anyone who has ever experienced temporary disability or illness can probably think of a few examples of cure evangelism which they have experienced.

What is cure evangelism?

Put simply, cure evangelism involves aggressively pushing a medical treatment or approach to a medical condition or disability on someone, without that person’s consent, interest, or desire. It takes a lot of different forms; the pregnant woman who is informed that she must have a natural birth and that if she thinks positive enough, it will happen; the cancer patient who is informed that ‘this great herbal supplement’ worked really well for the evangelist’s friend; the asthma patient controlling asthma with acupuncture who is constantly told to start using inhalers; the person with mental illness who is shamed for not taking medications.

In all of these cases, the cure evangelist identifies that someone has a medical issue, the evangelist has an opinion on how to treat that medical issue, and ou feels entitled to share it. Cure evangelism comes from all kinds of people, including people who have shared that experience and people who  have not shared that experience. It all boils down to ‘there’s only one way to handle this situation, and that’s my way.’

Cure evangelism presupposes, of course, that only one treatment for something would be appropriate or necessary. It presupposes that all bodies and issues are identical, which means that experiences can easily be overlaid on each other: ‘if I have asthma, everyone must have asthma like mine.’ At its core, it is about assuming that other people’s bodies belong to us, are subject to our control, and are our business. Indeed, that we have a moral obligation to interfere with what other people do with their bodies. To save them from themselves.

Why is it problematic?

I think that the problematic nature of cure evangelism is multifaceted. There are the issues of bodily autonomy which I covered in the above paragraph, which become especially complicated for women, trans* folks, people of colour, and people with disabilities. Members of all of these groups have historically been treated like property and in some cases are still considered property. And I’m not even talking about the metaphorical sense in this particular case.

When you have been exposed to a culture which regards you as a publicly tradeable commodity, exercising control and autonomy become especially paramount. Being able to make decisions for yourself and your own body without the approval or consent of others is part of taking control of yourself and your identity. Thus, when people in these groups are informed that they must do something, it comes from a very entrenched culture of ownership. The person speaking often has privilege, and is exercising that privilege thoughtlessly. Many people claim to be well meaning, say that they just want people to be informed, but this presupposes that people are not informed on their own and that, moreover, it is only possible to reach one informed choice.

Another facet of cure evangelism is that it is, quite frankly, annoying. People present these things as though they are new and different and no one has ever brought them up before when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. Every single time someone approaches me with a new act of cure evangelism, it’s always to tell me about something which I am already well aware of. In some cases, it might be something I am already doing. Or something which I did which did not work. Or something which I explored but decided was not for me.

When a cure evangelist is cornering me and telling me to do this or that, it puts me in a bad place. Rejection is taken as rude, so I can’t just get out of the conversation. I don’t really feel like discussing my body with other people, let alone how I take care of it, and I’m not really interested in saying ‘yes, I’m actually already doing that’ or discussing any aspect of my treatment plans with someone who is not part of my treatment. It’s a personal matter.

What you, personally, can do about it.

Don’t do it.

It’s that simple. If someone chooses to share the fact that ou is disabled, or sick, or temporarily injured with you, don’t evangelise. Now, if someone explicitly asks you for advice and suggestions, by all means, do so. But don’t do it in a pushy way. Make it clear that these are things you know from your own experience, but that mileage may vary.

When someone chooses to talk to you about ou treatment, listen. Don’t comment. Don’t judge. If that person is doing something which you disagree with, remember that it’s about ou body and ou choices. Imposing your values accomplishes nothing. If someone asks for your opinion, offer it. But, again, don’t be pushy about it. People are engaging in an act of faith and trust when they share that with you; don’t violate that.

If you feel that you have information which is simply critical, instead of volunteering it, say that you have information/advice and it’s available if that person is interested. If that person says no, respect that.

And when people are having conversations in their own community; as for example when people with disabilities are having an open thread about an issue which pertains to them, don’t butt in if you aren’t part of that community. Feel free to watch and take information away, but don’t add your two cents. The people in that conversation don’t want to hear about your relative/friend. They are talking about their experiences.

And, let me tell you, when a friend who shares a disability with me says ‘hey, guess what,’ I listen and pay attention, because it is offered respectfully and with love and from a place of shared experience. And sometimes I say things like ‘hey, I am thinking about changing medications, does anyone have experience with [medication]?’ and people who actually have experience talk to me, and I learn things, and it is good. These situations are not cure evangelism, though. They are about connecting in a place of shared experience and sharing mutually beneficial information.

(Originally published at this ain’t livin’)

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

14 thoughts on “On Cure Evangelism

  1. Oh, thank you for this! I despise cure evangelism with every fiber of my being. (I didn’t know it was called that though and when I saw the post title I assumed the post was going to be about people pushing their faith as the cure-all, but this is awesome too).

    I’ve faced a tricky variation on this though. I’m speaking to one person and mention my LDs. That person then calls over another person (most often their child) and says “KJ has LDs just like you. She can tell you how to overcome them,” and I’m thinking “NOOOOO.” I usually murmur something about how everyone is different and that it is important to play to your strengths, whatever those are, but this situation is just terribly uncomfortable. And I have sympathy for the parent and the child. My parents were really confused as to ‘what to do about KJ.’ And I would have loved a good role model that wasn’t taken from the classroom list of ‘Famous People with LDs.’ But asking me for answers, when I still am struggling (though quietly) is not fair anyone

  2. One thing cure evangelists can do (I was going to say TABs, but PWDs can be as well – this worked for me, it will work for you too!!) is if I ask for advice, I may just change my mind – it can be overwhelming once I realized what I asked for. Please respect my request to stop, even though I said yes before.

    About the last paragraph, I love using this site for that, especially on the chatterday threads. No, it might not do that for me, I may not have the same side effects, but it means more than just facts on a website.

    I think cure evangelists are a bit like Monk – your illness or disability represents something wrong to them, and it must be fixed, because you go out with your physical aid, or say, hey I have to sit down/I need to stop, this really hurts, and you walk around all fat and junk. Or it’s fear – if I take vitamin X every day, I won’t end up like her! And if I drink this snake oil weightloss shake, I won’t look like her! So, she should know about them as well, maybe then she won’t be so weird and so fat.

  3. As an addict, I’ve gotten a lot of cure evangelism in my time. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been referred to Alcoholics Anonymous by people who I’m sure mean well. Of course I’ve heard of AA, I find the program problematic, I don’t need to go to a meeting or find a sponsor. I manage my addiction just fine on my own. Just because I quit drinking doesn’t mean I buy into the idea that I have a moral obligation to be healthy or sober, either.
    (There’s a lot more there to unpack but I won’t unleash that diatribe here. Some of it is intersectional with depression, much of it has to do with class.)

  4. I hadn’t really realized why so much of what my relatives and several doctors have said to me bothers me until reading this post – they all wanted to force treatments for my issues on me – because they knew more about my body, mind, and mental health than I did. Uh, sorry, no. I’m overweight, and one doctor (a fricking doctor) told me to find Jesus (after asking about my religious beliefs – inappropriate much? Well, I won’t be seeing that doctor again) because Jesus would help me lose weight and deal with my depression. Sorry, no. Not your place. Further, as a doctor, you should see that it ain’t Jesus making me depressed, tired, and overweight – it’s chronic medical condition I’ve already been diagnosed with, and improperly treated for since I was diagnosed. And every time my mother told me, “Go to Alanon, honey, I just know it’ll cure you (like it cured her) of your depression.” Yeah, sorry, no. 1) I have no access to meetings where I’m not the youngest person there, and 2) there’s a HUGE amount of ageism in those meetings I’ve gone to – I’m too young to have experienced problems, so I should shut up and listen to the adults talk about their issues (except, of course, that I am an adult – but not having been married automatically demotes me to child-status).

    Then there’s the whole part where I got called fat. Yeah. I’m overweight, yes. I could use to lose some weight. But I also happen to exercise more than most people who are “thin” do – I’m active in karate and I am learning how to run despite knee problems (which have miraculously lessened as I run more – a definite benefit that I wasn’t expecting from a high-impact sport). In fact, I exercise 6 days of the week, about an hour a day. I’m not overweight because I choose to be, but because I have a chronic condition that is being improperly treated/ not treated at all (still trying to get test results so I can see which of these is true). But apparently I needed to be told that I’m fat because otherwise I won’t do the right thing for myself and diet and exercise. Cue eye roll. No, I’ve been called fat because it’s a way to control me, to help keep my mood in a certain place where I’m easily manipulated and turned to what people want, and because it helps my mom deal with her weight issues to see her daughter as being “worse” than her.

    So yeah. Thanks for this post. It helped me realize that I don’t have to take all this crud just because the people throwing it at me are my mother and doctors. Sorry if this comment is a bit long.

  5. It seems that people with ME (sometimes called CFS) have a big problem with people pushing “cures” that supposedly do away with the illness in a matter of days — one of the most commonly-cited is the so-called Lightning Process, a talk-therapy programme which has no medical basis but has been widely touted in the British media, even though it can lead people to think they’re better and then behave as if they no longer had ME, and end up relapsing. (We saw this even after a well-publicised story in the UK about a woman who suffered from it severely for 17 years, who was bedbound and paralysed, and who crucially couldn’t speak or sit up, but apparently a bit of talk therapy could have done her a power of good, if she could have got as far as the venue.) To quote from a well-known Australian-based ME activist:

    Never listen to treatment recommendations which came from your friend’s brother’s neighbour’s second cousin twice removed (or similar) who supposedly had ‘just what they have’ and who ‘recovered completely’ and is now ‘back working full time’ because of treatment x. Such ridiculous stories should always be treated with the contempt they deserve by all of us. There is a very strong possibility these people never had M.E. …but there is an even stronger possibility that they never existed at all! The treatments recommended are always the most mundane things too, well known over the counter products, or simple diets etc. as if people as desperately ill with M.E. and the doctors who have devoted decades of their lives to treating M.E. patients wouldn’t have tried all the simple things already! Again, if it was that simple nobody would still have M.E., and certainly not severe M.E.

    If something really worked, the M.E. world is very well connected and VERY EXTREMELY motivated to get better, and we would all KNOW very very quickly. That is a fact you can count on.

    (From So You Know Someone With ME?.)

  6. Yes, oh yes. My mother’s got a fairly bad case of it. During my childhood she pushed all sorts of things on me- herbals, acupuncture, biofeedback. Little sis also got a big dose of it- she had really bad migraines up until puberty. Some of them helped, but most of them weren’t helpful.
    Now that I’m an adult, I’ve found that I’m a little bit guilty of it too. I try to keep my mouth shut unless I’m asked about something specific.

  7. No doctor or nurse has told me to find Jesus yet, but the woman who did my EKG as part of the intake stuff at the psych ward did. I just nodded and said yes, I will.

    She had power over me – and in a physical sense! I was flat on the bed, she’s standing up. Ugh.

    Dr Ego, for all his faults, has never mentioned my weight and got mad when we said we wanted to know where I’d be in a year. He has no idea what’s wrong and he wants to take his time. So I’m lucky, but you know, Mom. And life.

    At the psych ward, I think they wanted to scare our depression and anger issues and other problems out of us – first morning, “I work in a prison at my other job, if you don’t shape up, I’ll see you there!” Real helpful…

  8. My mom does get fed up with my depression, even when she acknowledges that having somebody doubt her and belittle her when she was depressed sucked. “Just smile!”

    However, on a lighter note, she never ever recommended I do what she did about her thyroid problems. There was a diagnosis, she had to take pills, but with that she couldn’t go overseas. So she stopped! And had no problems from it. She told me the story, but there was no cure evangelism with the thyroid. Or the skin infections. Both very easy to prove (and in one case, see).

  9. I love being told that my migraines, which my doctor and I have worked out a treatment program for, is really celiac disease and only could be caused by gluten, so if I cut gluten, I could quit my pills!

    Except … I don’t have celiac, and I’m really happy with my pills, thanks.

  10. I have to admit to having been of both sides of the evagelical thing… I hate when people find out about my hearing problems and ask “Why don’t you get grommets put in?” At this point I have to make nice while I’m thinking “Do you know what grommets are? How are they supposed to help with perforated ear drums that have scar tissue all over and a prosthetic ossicular chain?

    On the other hand, it’s not always a bad thing when it’s not unsolicited. My friends often come to me for advice when they have ear trouble, and I’m sure that in such situations I can come across as being somewhat evangelical, although I will readily admit that I don’t know better, I just know more… ;p

    However, when one of my friends sons had a bad ear infection, and was being fobbed off by the doctors with “It’s just glue ear, it’ll clear up on its own” she found it made a huge difference to take me with her to his next doctors appointment. Having me tell the doc that “I’m an amateur otologist, and this seems to be presenting as otitis externa” got her son properly examined and sent home with antibiotic eardrops – something she had spent 6 months trying (unsuccessfully) to acheive.

    However, in any other situation, rather than make suggestions, I prefer to ask for information, such as “What’s your opinion on xyz that I’ve heard about?” This tends to lead to one of two outcomes – either I learn something, which is good for me (because I am interested – else I’d’ve kept my mouth shut!) or the person I’m talking to says “I’ve not heard of that, I’ll have to look into it”.

    I love it when people ask me questions like that, it can lead to a really good conversation about the pros and cons of one treatment over another, and in some cases it really can help – such a conversation with another patient at my ear specialists led to my having surgery to prevent infections, which has been a real bonus for me!

  11. Kaitlyn, the ‘Jesus as the cure for all ailments’ is especially frustrating for me. I was ‘treated’ at a ‘Christian treatment center’ that was borderline emotionally abusive. If religion helps a person, that is good for them but when a person who doesn’t believe in god is basically told ‘believe in this version of Christianity or else you will be sick forever and go to hell and until you believe you will stay here,’ that is abusive. I think treatment centers that practice religious coercion as a cure are very dangerous.

  12. A few weeks ago I filled in a survey online and one of the questions was ‘Do you suffer from obesity?’. Now, I am a fat woman, I’m deathfatz in fact, but I ticked no. I don’t suffer from it, see. I do quite well and exist quite happily in my fat body. I had a little giggle to myself because of that.

  13. OMG, until I read these comments I had entirely forgotten about the nurse in the psych hospital who confiscated my book (not a controversial book in any sense, just a novel) on the basis that the Bible she provided would do me much more good!

  14. I find it particularly obnoxious when this happens, but thankfully it’s not happened much. And the one case I can think of, this guy was pushing blue-green algae on me (for muscular dystrophy–WTF?), which he sells–but I already knew the guy had a horrible sense of social boundaries and appropriate conversation topics. Doesn’t excuse it, but at least it was consistent with other awkward and annoying interactions with him…

    And just for fun, I think my answers to “have you found Jesus?” would be either “yes, I found him lacking”, or “what, is he lost or something?”. I shudder to think people are subjected to religious coercion. A much more disgusting form of evangelism.

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