Thursday, August 03, 2006

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.


Anonymous said...

I have a friend who is a self harmer.
She cuts herself and has been known to drink "Slug slam" and swallow glass, etc.
She knows she is doing this for attention.
She has told me it’s for attention.
She’s not afraid to say so.
She doesn't cover her scars, in fact she will take of her sweater when she meets new people.
I have had a tough week.
She knows this, she visited me in hospital during the week (and was one of those visitors who don't know when to leave, they have to be asked to leave me the hell alone)
She burned herself this week.
Its a reasonably big burn inflicted by leaving her arm on the heater for 30 minutes. Wednesday morning I finally got the energy to get back to my life, and pick up normality right where I left it... I was reflecting on the long list of tasks to be done and assignments that would now need extensions over a leisurely coffee(the coffee was fantastic…the best I’ve had in a long age!) when my reflections were interrupted by said friend. She sat and began to bemoan the pain her arm was causing and was waiting for me to be sympathetic.
I was have an ungracious moment.
I wanted to tell her that she had no right to bemoan self inflicted pain. I wanted to pull out the just home from hospital card. I wanted to tell her to grow up and get a life, I wanted to yell at her that I would love to swap bodies for a little while just so I can have a break. I forgot a long time ago what it feels like to be “Normal”…Did I?
No…because I hate confrontation. Because I hate the fact that she does this to herself, tries to hurt herself for attention and I have to fight every day just to do the little things in life that other people take for granted with out drawing any attention.
So like you Laurie, I murmured niceties while staring into space and staring into my coffee… my perfect coffee, now ruined by my lack of empathy for another human being who needs to know she has your attention.
I said the words, but not from the heart. And I felt like crap for resenting her. I know I have to deal with this, and I will, but not today…..for today I’ll just feel like crap for being the cold heartless cow that none else sees.
I don’t want to become one of them, Martyrs to Illness.

Thanks for the post….
You say so eloquently what I only feel.
At least I know I’m not abnormal, not in this anyway.
Cheers Laurie.

Anonymous said...

I'm not a blogspotter so I guess I have to be anonymous, but I really wanted to leave a comment on your post!

I deal with a chronic pain disease in addition to recovering from a (separate) nerve damaging illness. I also have children with multiple medical issues requiring many doctor visits and occasional surgery.

It is SOOO hard to grit my teeth when healthy people complain about petty issues (or what I would call petty in the grand scheme of things). A cold, a sore muscle, a sleepless night are all considered a "crisis" for these people and it makes me crazy.

I recently had to comfort a friend whose child was having ear tubes placed. This is a very VERY minor procedure (heck, I had my ear tubes put in in the office with just a local anesthetic!) but she was completely freaked out that her son was undergoing SURGERY.

I couldn't help think, "God, if this is the worst thing you have to worry about then be GLAD!" But while she moaned, cried and prayed in the waiting room, I clamped my mouth shut, patted her hands, and gave her occasional hugs. I had to remind myself that this sort of thing is NOT commonplace to her and it was truly frightening.

It's a good suggestion not to become a martyr to our illnesses because no one needs to hear all that. But if I hear one more person moan about how sore they are from hauling 50lb bags of fertilizer while they worked their garden from sunup to sundown the entire weekend, I'll scream.

~ Thanks for letting me vent ~


Anonymous said...

A comment from J├Ârgen, 50 years, Pcd, Gothenburg, Sweden.
I agree with everyting in this post. Though I find it very, very hard to be as one should be sometimes, and I find myself in a state of wrath and hate aginst "the healthy". Not, that anyone will notice, because I just keep it to myself, and sometimes I wonder how it affects me. I do understand, that they cannot understand. I know what´s right and wrong. So how am I, to handle this anger? Maybe there is a better way, than just drive the car as fast as one can, and scream. :o)

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