When Illness and Empathy Clash
By all accounts, it was an innocent remark. I was on the phone with a good friend of mine who was recovering from a particularly nasty cold. Her voice still sounded a bit nasal, and she excused herself once to cough. “Not that I should be complaining about a little cold to you. I feel sort of stupid since this is nothing compared to what you deal with,” she said when she returned to the phone. She sounded sheepish.
I reassured her that that of course she should tell me about it, and I meant it. She sounded absolutely miserable, and a cold is annoying and incapacitating no matter how healthy you are otherwise. We moved on to other things, but her comment lingered in my mind. I don’t ever want to become a martyr for my illnesses, nor do I want them to influence the balance of give and take that exists in any good relationship.
Implicitly, my friend’s comment showed that she understood the realities of my life—serious lung infections, hospitalizations, exhaustion, etc—as best as she could from her perspective as a healthy person. So why did we both feel so awkward in that particular moment? The healthy and the sick have competing rights to compassion and empathy, an idea that makes total sense in theory but can be difficult to put into practice.
Don’t get me wrong, my friend’s exaggerated sensitivity towards my illness was far easier to deal with than the reverse reaction. Like most, I’ve had my share of negative responses to illness. There are volumes of stories out there of people who doubt our illnesses or dismiss them altogether. This is not a point I will belabor, but it is a common phenomenon.
What concerns me isn’t so much when other people don’t respond to me with empathy or compassion but when I am not able to extend those courtesies myself. It’s the dirty little secret of chronic illness, I think. Most of the time, like when my friends are sick or someone I know has an aggravating experience at a doctor’s office, I know what to say and do and how to be what they need from me at that time.
But there are other times when I do not feel as gracious, when I am exhausted from an infection or overwhelmed with getting my life back on track after a long hospitalization and I do not have the resources to respond to others with empathy. It’s almost as if illness removed me from the everyday world of everyday complaints and created a distance between healthy people and myself that I couldn’t just automatically bridge. I was stuck in one place—fear, frustration, etc—and I couldn’t relate to other people. Or wouldn’t relate, to be more accurate.
Deep down, I just wanted to say “Suck it up!” to the woman in the chair next to me at the doctor’s office who complained of pollen allergies, to the acquaintance at work who went on and on about how stressful her life was, or to the person who treated a mild case of strep throat as the end of the world.
For a fleeting second, it is so tempting to respond with something like, “Well, I just got out of the ICU recently because my lung collapsed” or “This is the first day I’ve been able to walk or brush my own hair for a week because my adrenal glands do not work.” I longed for the shock value I imagined those comments would elicit.
But to say such things would make me my own worst nightmare, a martyr for my illnesses. That kind of response would erect a wall between anyone who couldn’t compete with my illnesses and myself. It would also mean I was acting with the very same lack of empathy I find so frustrating in other people.
So in those moments I smiled and nodded in the appropriate places and murmured expressions of concern, but that doesn’t change the fact that my intentions were not genuine. Even though I said the right things, it didn’t mean I always felt them.
Eventually I regain my place in the pace of everyday life and I am not so temporarily boxed in by illnesses that I cannot let anyone else’s needs enter into my thoughts. I regret these instances of resentment because I am not proud of my reactions, but ultimately I take from them the idea no one has a market on suffering. Though our perspectives are often quite different, the healthy and the sick are still entitled to the same empathy and to the understanding of others that we want most in our darkest moments.