Thursday, January 22, 2015

On Saying the Wrong Thing

Because I think it's fair to say I'm above-average neurotic, I want to get a couple of things out of the way before I start.

  1. My husband is the one who is sick. I am not. I come at this from the "well spouse" perspective. Being an existentialist, I recognize that, while we can provide each other valuable support, it only goes so far. Other people matter, but ultimately we all face an infinite, unknown void, and although it's a universal experience, every one of us does it alone. Even the people closest to us cannot relieve us of that. I speak for myself because I'm the only person I'm qualified to speak for. 
  2. My husband's illness does not, at this point, appear to be life-threatening. I might have drawn very difficult conclusions if it did. We don't know if his illness is a "get your affairs in order" kind of thing, or more of a "gosh, that's a bummer." 
  3. I'm not perfect, and may have violated the very rules I'm advocating at times. Of course, nobody wants to be a hypocrite, but I'm more afraid of being judged as someone with no self-awareness, and if I had no self-awareness, I wouldn't know it. So naturally, I worry. 
  4. This isn't meant to be a passive-aggressive dig at people who have offended my delicate sensibilities. I hope and believe that, on the off chance they ready my blog - and I have no reason to believe they do - I'm leaving out as much detail as I can while still making my point. I can honestly say that only, like, 10% of me hopes these women recognize themselves. 
So that's out of the way. 

You know what I hate? Those list/articles circling the internet, helping us all out by telling us "the 9 things you're doing wrong and making everyone hate you" and other such nonsense. Look, internet, you deliberately make us all as self-conscious as possible, and when you're done, you tell us we're narcissists. But having to monitor my behavior for any and all possible faux pas doesn't leave me a whole lot of time to think about anything else. So if you have a sincere desire to improve humanity, lay off. 

So why would I write this? Is it a list of the two things not to do? Or am I just venting? It must be the latter. An idea can swirl around in my head for months or years, until one day, I'm seized with such a strong desire to write about it that I won't have any peace until I do. This is one of those times. 

One thing I've never wanted to do is keep a mental record of all the stupid, insensitive things people have said to my husband or me in regards to his illness. Partly because my experience has been that nobody has said anything all that bad, and partly because I'd rather recognize good intentions than get caught up in the details. People aren't perfect, and I like them anyway. I'm not perfect, and somehow I haven't been shunned by all of society. Expecting every attempt at support to be graceful and perfectly executed is the quickest road to having no support I can think of. 

Additionally, I know that my husband being the one with this particular malady doesn't relieve others of their inherent fears. Most of us know making everything about ourselves isn't how you provide support. So we try, we really do. It's better if you don't launch into a story about yourself when you're supposed to be talking about someone else's problem, and keeping your own ignorance in mind is always a good idea. 

All that is true, and remembering it goes a long way. But we're all going to die, and none of us are happy about it. Serious illness in someone else provokes a very real, valid and primal fear in all of us. The fact is, nobody - from your nearest and dearest, to the cashier in the grocery store - wants to hear, "I don't know what's wrong." It removes their ability to figure out all the ways in which they're totally different from you, and therefore not vulnerable to your affliction. If God-knows-what , God-knows-why can happen to me, it can happen to you. If that bothers you, you're right on. It should. 

Without their defense mechanism of trying to distance themselves, people will try very hard to find an answer. Sometimes, they'll go so far as to make something up. I get it. 

Fact is, people are complicated, and they don't stop being complicated even if I'm the one very close to the center of the drama. Life is messy. Other people are whole even when it's supposed to be about me. Keeping that at the front of your mind will spare you much heartache. 

What I'm trying to say is, people have every reason to say clumsy, thoughtless things. Considering the impossible burden they all carry, they do remarkably well. So well that over the past few years, only two reactions have really, really gotten under my skin. If you want to hear what they are, you've come to the right place. 

Getting on my nerves, part 1: 

A woman who had a prepared speech she liked to give regarding the medical field. I heard this speech no less than three times. 

"Everyone thinks you go to the doctor, they figure out what's wrong, and they cure it, but it's just not true." 

There was more to it than that, but that's the gist of it. It doesn't merit further elaboration. It bothered me because she had us dead wrong, and didn't seem to hear this no matter how many times I tried to say so. 

While I can't say I ever thought my husband would be the one with a mystery ailment, I had no trouble wrapping my brain around their existence. We aren't, and never were, doe-eyed simps who expect daddy to solve all our problems, okay? Not because we're jaded by misfortune, but because we're realists. We don't believe in miracles or miracle workers. We do believe in human kindness, however, and find it's almost as good. I have always know doctors can't diagnose or solve all our problems. 

Also, when I said "in sickness and in health" (I don't remember if I really said that when I got married, but it was definitely implied), I meant it. Moreover, I knew sickness was a "when", not an "if." Did I expect it to happen this soon? No. But I've never had that feeling of the universe reneging a promise it never actually made. On some level, I knew it was possible. 

When I tried to explain to this woman what she was getting wrong, I hadn't yet articulated the nature of my dissatisfaction with the doctors who told my husband, "your tests are fine; go home and wait for something worse to happen." So although I'm fairly certain I told her no, we do not think doctors are magicians who can wave a magic wand and make all one's problems magically disappear, I didn't yet have the words to drive my point home. I do now, but that's its own can of worms, and hopefully she isn't reading this anyway. 

Getting on my nerves, part 2: 

I don't believe in unselfish good deeds. Which isn't to say I don't believe people are good and well-intentioned. I do. I just think we're all trying to get out needs met, all the time. A desire to help is usually at least partly sincere, but there will always be a bit of a self-serving element. That's fine. Advice either pans out, or it doesn't. Kind words of support resonate, or they don't. It doesn't matter. I see your good intentions, and I'm not going to subject them to a purity test. 

I'd prefer your attempts at support be at least, say, 30% genuine, which leads me to the other thing that bothered me. 

A friend made an armchair diagnosis. This happens often enough, and it's fine. Well, I wouldn't blame my husband if he was sick and tired of it, but at this point, you can still bring your guesses to me. You're probably wrong, but probably is a far cry from definitely. 

What offended me about this particular armchair diagnosis was that a) it was very dire, and b) I knew this woman's MO. She loves proving how intelligent and knowledgeable she is so much, she would have been fucking thrilled to have been proven right. Not because she wishes us ill, but because that's how much she loves being right. I could elaborate, but can you see why I didn't appreciate that? 

That's pretty much it. If you want to support us, don't use our misfortune to stroke your own ego, and please refrain from implying we're stupid or naive. You might think we are - that's none of my business - but if your aim is ostensibly to be supportive, I would ask that you keep it to yourself.  I'd say it also didn't help that, as far as I knew, neither of these women had actually earned the wisdom they were so generously sharing with me. 

Also, how lucky am I? The fact that these are my only two complaints are a sign that my family and I know a whole lot of intelligent, kind people. I thank you for it. 


  1. During my 'cancer journey', there were times I wanted to hand out the graphic from this article like a business card. The one time instance I (bravely, idiotically? exhaustedly?) shared it with a smootheringly 'helpful' friend did not go well....

  2. I remember reading that! I know people aren't going to react perfectly all the time, but they could sort of pay attention to how the conversation is going and edit what they're saying accordingly, you know?