Myths, Stigma and Port

Do you drink a lot of Port? This could be a very seasonal question with the answer “yes, with stilton…” but this is a question I have been asked countless times since I was diagnosed with Gout in the days after the London Mind and Soul Conference. Often followed with numerous questions regarding red wine, alcohol, rich food, etc. These questions all reflect the commonly held myths regarding who it is that catches Gout and what causes it. They also brought me to the point of recognition of how quickly one can be labelled and the stigma that follows.

Working for Premier Christian Radio and having for over 8 years had a weekday radio programme my absence due to the excruciating pain of gout was duly noticed and Rick my co-presenter of Lifeline Live quite openly told our listening audience that I was suffering off work from Gout. This was obviously so that the listeners could pray for me but it also triggered a range of interesting responses.

For some they would immediately have thought of the long held beliefs that Gout is limited to the rich and royalty who overindulge in alcohol and in particular fortified wines and port along with rich foods. The picture of the lazy overweight Prince Regent would have come to many a mind. Others wrote in with suggestions of what to do, books to read, diets to follow. A number privately told me that they also had been diagnosed with Gout.

As time went by as I was quite open about having been diagnosed with Gout and I was surprised by how many people confessed that they also had suffered in silence but never told anyone because of how the public viewed it, the myths associated with it and the stigma attached. It truly feels that it is a condition that people suffer privately with as there is always the fear of being judged, condemned, and blamed, for what is an exceptionally painful condition. At least two people told me of family members with Gout who were tea-total and therefore alcohol could not have been a factor in their illness. One woman described the pain of Gout as being far worse than that of childbirth – she had experienced both, however, I cannot comment on this.

When I investigated the changes I needed to make to my diet I was surprised that a whole range of the foods that I have always seen as healthy and are often recommended for a healthy balanced diet are ones that I need now to avoid or limit my intake of. Along with many other conditions, Gout is not quite what it seems.

Having now had time to reflect on the public response to gout, myths, stigma, and labelling associated with it, it truly reminds me of the labelling, myths and stigma associated with mental ill-health. Mental illness can cause an avoidance response in the public due to the “it could happen to me” fear along with “I don’t understand it as it is not like a physical illness.” This leaves people suffering from mental illness isolated and alone, as they are cautious to tell other people including family, friends and Church as they are unsure how others will respond and whether there will be the same judgemental, condemnation, and labelling that I experienced with Gout. It is easy to blame the sufferer when they are suffering, when what they really need is help and support to recover from the problem and get back to a life more akin to normal.

This Christmas spend a moment to consider all those who might need support in some way for whatever reason and put on one side the judgemental hat that we all so easily wear. I wish you all a joyful Christmas and every blessing for the New Year.

Jonathan Clark, 18/12/2008