Recently, I took an online health assessment on my health insurance’s website. I answered questions about my weight, exercise routine, diet, any risky habits, and history of diseases. Aside from being treated for depression (the closest approximation for bipolar disorder they had listed), I’m in good shape.
Just that one thing.
What was my score? 53 out of 100.
The average score of women in my age bracket? 58 out of 100.
Now wait a minute. I take good care of my body; my doctors agree. I eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and effectively, avoid alcohol, don’t smoke, and take my medications carefully.
It’s paid off: my BMI is excellent, I’m reasonably strong, I don’t have many health issues, aside from the iron deficiency (which I manage) and the bipolar disorder (which I also manage). When I become stressed, I try to deal with it in healthy ways. In other words, I should have a higher score than below average.
Frankly, it made me mad. Because I had to check the box indicating that I’d been diagnosed with depression and was currently being treated for it, and because I indicated that I had a stressful period of time earlier this year that interrupted my work schedule (brought on by bipolar-related issues), I was considered “at high risk” with stress and “at moderate risk” for depression.
Reach out for help, they advised. They followed with a list of advice that was, frankly, ludicrous because I already do them.
It’s the paradox of being treated for a mental illness. On one hand, if I weren’t being treated for bipolar disorder, I would be unstable. My life would be a wreck, and there would be many more risky behaviors in my health assessment. On the other hand, since I am being treated for it, I’m stable and healthy . . . but I’m considered at risk (or a risk, if you look at it that way).
I ranted to my husband for about three minutes and my anger disappeared. I was able to see something laughable in the situation. After all, I know the truth; I know I’m healthy. What can a computer program, crunching numbers from some location in cyberspace, know about the real state of my body and mind?
(Fortunately, this assessment doesn’t affect my insurance coverage, so there’s no real world consequence to a low score other than a temporarily bruised ego. Other people aren’t as fortunate in this regard, as many mental health advocates have pointed out. I won’t repeat their stats and facts here.)
What I thought about was The Circle, by Dave Eggers. (You knew I would drag in a novel, didn’t you?) Mae, a young, rather flatly characterized woman, works for a Google-like company. The company emphasizes sharing, as in sharing of personal information (including health information) with everyone in your “circle.”
You wear a little wrist band that constantly measures your vital stats; everyone can see if, say, your blood pressure is up or down, if your pulse is low or high, everything anyone could possibly want to know. Numbers are constantly present: the number of contacts you have, the number of associations you’re a part of, the number of comments you’ve made, your social score (like popularity rank).
Every aspect of someone’s life is associated with a number. Like my health score, though, this has limitations. Can you judge quality by quantity? Mae, the protagonist, and her employer believe this is true. Her life is richer for having millions of contacts. But is it?
If all you did was look at my health score of 53 and notice that it was below average, you might conclude that I was in crappy health and indulged in many harmful behaviors. But would that be true?
Soon, Mae goes “transparent”; she wears a video camera everywhere (except the bathroom stall and the bedroom). Everyone in her circle can see her life in real time and vicariously experience everything she experiences. The company wants everyone to be transparent and share all their information with everyone else. This will be wonderful, the company claims. It will transform the judicial system and the media, lead to the end of discrimination and crime and secret political deals, and all kinds of fabulous things that would take far too long to describe.
But transparency has drawbacks, as when she accidentally walks in on her parents during sex and live broadcasts it to all her followers. Talk about mortifying. Her followers hasten to reassure her (and through her, her parents) that this is good: It shows that older people enjoy sex, too, and decreases ageism, they say. Her parents don’t see it this way.
Ironically, the more transparent and accessible she becomes, the less of a real life she has. She can’t have private conversations with her best friend, because privacy doesn’t exist anymore. She can’t relate to anyone on a deeper level. She experiences her life through a camera lens and other people’s reactions to whatever the camera records. She’s become nothing more than a medium through whom other people see the world. She’s truly transparent: a see-through person.
Her self doesn’t matter. It doesn’t even exist anymore.
It struck me that this is a bit like what prejudice is. If all we see is someone’s diagnosis (or race, gender, etc.), then it is easy to start seeing through that person. Their likes and dislikes, opinions and personalities, everything that makes a person human—all of this disappears, submerged beneath the prejudice.
They become less of a person and more of a personification of whatever we happen to believe. If you happen to believe that someone being treated for depression is less healthy because of that treatment, then you want my health score lowered.
If you happen to believe that we need more positive attitudes toward the elderly and sex, then, like Mae’s followers who believe her parents shouldn’t be upset about a huge breach of privacy, you won’t necessarily see why they react with mortification and anger. All you’ll see is how this accidental sex tape “helps promote healthy attitudes.” You won’t see the human part of the equation, the part that points out the need for privacy in intimate affairs.
In other words, her parents aren’t humans to you. They’re see-through people, personifications of your beliefs, without individual opinions and emotions. They’re a vehicle for your views, whether they’re positive or negative. And that makes you, us, me, a little less human, too.
When we are prejudiced, we lose sight of others’ humanity. But we also lose something precious in ourselves, too: our humanity.
P.S.: I retook the health assessment and removed the “currently receiving treatment for depression” indicator. My score went up 6 points.
Photo Credit: GaborfromHungary, morgueFile.com, edited by Laura Droege