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So I've recently seen a few people use the word "sufferer" to describe themselves having a certain mental disorder. I know that a person thinking that they are suffering a certain disorder may be quite subjective, but their usage is still questionable.

The best exhibit I have for this question is somebody calling themself a "sufferer" of the mental disorder "misophonia". To save you a Google search, basically it means that you become pretty annoyed or even enraged at noises like people chewing ice, people chewing food loudly in general, and et cetera. I too have this disorder (if you can call it that) and I did not relate to the word "sufferer" at all, so I disagreed with the usage (not verbally; I didn't want to start an argument).

To elaborate even more, I will include another example. I have seen people call themselves a "sufferer" of a disorder called "visual snow". Basically, this disorder causes static to cover one's vision in a way almost relatable to TV static (not really). It's very hard to explain and it is rare, but I suggest you Google it because it is interesting. Once again, I too have this disorder and have had it for my entire life. Seeing people describe their experience as "suffering" almost baffle me. I only notice my static if I am in a situation that has solid color (like pitch black or looking at a whiteboard) or if I purposefully pay attention to the static. It never obtrudes life in any way and many who tolerate this disorder will agree that it is not obtrusive.


With all of this I do not understand why one would say they are suffering from a disorder that does not inflict physical, mental, and/or social harm. Each side of health is arguable, as neither of these technically cause harm on either end (referring to a commenter, you becoming enraged and punching a wall is not direct pain from the disorder "misophonia).

So my main question is, after seeing that Google defines the "dated" usage of the word as a "tolerator", would the word "sufferer" be acceptable in cases in which one does not necessarily "suffer" anything? I'll apologize that this question is really subjective and may not have any answer, but really I am just trying to get a consensus. Thank you in advance!

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    Becoming enraged sounds like a form of suffering. – sumelic Feb 7 '16 at 9:35
  • @sumelic Great point, but note that this example was just one of many. Some of these have no infliction of actual pain or a way that would seem to be "suffering". Then again, that is still subjective :/ – Shortninja Feb 7 '16 at 9:37
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    I'd say "one person's suffering is another person's pleasure" (e.g., masochism), but it might confuse the issue even more. The final word is (aside from 'zythum') that "suffering" is a social, not a personal construct. So, yes, you may not feel you're suffering, but others are convinced you are...and so, you are. This is implicit in the definitions of 'disorder' and 'disease', and in turn implies a social arrogance that I find distasteful, but yet necessary...sometimes. Consider child labor. The children may not be suffering--they may enjoy it--but societies insist they are, unknowingly. – JEL Feb 7 '16 at 10:07
  • Adults and children are different. Adults are the only one who can say that they themselves are suffering. Society does not get to define that. With children, by definition they have limited experience, and so yes, we can say that a child who is forced into labor suffers because we have the experience that children who are denied educational opportunities to not develop fully and suffer their whole lives because of it. We also know that an 8 hour shift for a child is experienced like an 80 hour shift. The job of a child is to learn, not labor. They prepare for their adult labors. – Simon White Feb 7 '16 at 10:36
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The modern way to express this is to say someone is “living with” the disease or disorder.

For example, instead of saying someone is “suffering from depression” you would say that person is “living with depression.” It also works with diseases that can be terminal. Where we used to say “dying from cancer” we now say “living with cancer” or “living with AIDS.” This is not just being sensitive or kind. You could say someone is “dying from cancer” and then they go on to live the next 20 years while you die of a brain aneurysm the next day. On a long enough timeline we are all terminal.

You are right that whether someone is “suffering” is a value judgement that only the person with the disease or disorder can say. Even some chronic diseases come and go. Someone who has an auto-immune disease that is in remission is not necessarily “suffering” from the disease, but they are still “living with” it. It can come out of remission at any time. They may have to eat a special diet for their whole life, but they might live a fuller and happier, more suffering-free life than the average person.

So to say someone is “living with misophonia” is descriptive and factual and neutral. They are living, they have misophonia. End of story. If you want to know if they are suffering, ask them.

  • The only sort of problem that arises is that people prefer to use "suffering" no matter what. Of course, even if two people have a disorder and they have contrasting opinions on whether or not they are "suffering", we can't know how one will perceive a situation. But, from a social stand point, people all view the situation very similarly. People always assume that others with depression are very sad and have little hope. However, one person may believe that people with depression are always suicidal, so this still is trivial. – Shortninja Feb 7 '16 at 10:59
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The usage of "sufferer" is linked to the increasingly common terminology around mental illness as, well, an illness - a disease, something that afflicts you. This is in contrast to long-standing views that mental illnesses represent something that is wrong with you - a far more pejorative, judgemental point of view. Here's a representative example from Wikipedia, under the "Stigma" chapter of the Mental Disorders article. (I chose a section about Clergy because it illustrated my point, not because I believe religious leaders are unique in this regard):

A 2008 study by Baylor University researchers found that clergy in the US often deny or dismiss the existence of a mental illness. Of 293 Christian church members, more than 32 percent were told by their church pastor that they or their loved one did not really have a mental illness, and that the cause of their problem was solely spiritual in nature, such as a personal sin, lack of faith or demonic involvement. The researchers also found that women were more likely than men to get this response.

In a climate where mental illness is either dismissed or regarded as a personal failing, the rhetoric of "mental disorders as illness" leads, naturally, to "people with mental disorders are suffering from an illness".

If you accept this paradigm of mental illness, the word "sufferer" makes sense and is totally acceptable. If you do not subscribe to this world-view, the word won't make sense.

  • From somebody who literally suffers and has suffered (in this account, I find "suffering" more than relevant) crippling social anxiety and depression, I do understand what mental illness means. However, the terms with which I am arguing against include ones that do not necessarily seem too harsh. I will add another example to the OP, to enlighten a bit more. – Shortninja Feb 7 '16 at 9:40

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