Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Sick Script

People often ask me how they ought to act when a friend reveals she's been diagnosed with a serious illness. Generally they respond to their pal in one of two ways: plug in, or freak out. Plugger-inners would rather err on the side of doing too much for a sick friend than too little. Freaker-outers worry about screwing up an unspoken code of behavior, or fear that somehow they'll contract a disease themselves. There is a third category who seem to get a perverse thrill from your bad luck. It's like schadenfreude, but more like sickenfreude. These folks almost feel pleasure when you become weak or dependent. I say, Nuke 'em. End those relationships. No poisonous energy needed now, thank you very much.

I was shocked by how clueless some people became when speaking to me about illness and disease. It may have been their nerves talking, but I was mystified by acquaintances who compared another's scourge to my own. Ah, the foolish things even the most well-intentioned people say:

"I don't know what to say!" (How about, "I heard and I care"?)

"But you sound okay."

"Chemo drip? At least it wasn't a portho-cath."

"That's nothing. My sister-in-law's mother's brother got bitten by a scorpion, and..."

"You have (INSERT ILLNESS HERE)? Well, I know how you feel because I broke my leg when I was seven."

"I know how you feel. My cat had leukemia."

"I know how you feel. I have symptoms of lupus. It's not actual lupus, but it's still pretty intense."

Basically any sentence that starts with "I know how you feel" is not a fantastic opener. Also unwelcome: visitors with colds. I know you want to show up for me , but don't you know better? I have a completely compromised immune system. That means it doesn't work. Your sneeze will become my pneumonia. Thanks for coughing on me. Now excuse me while I go Purell my entire body.

Then there's the whole contingency of silver lining-ers who can't make psychic room for the possibility of unwellness. They say things like:

"Well, look on the bright side..."

"Well, at least you still have all ten fingers."

"Well, at least it's not cancer."

At least it's not cancer? Cancer has funding for research. Cancer has cures. People have heard of cancer. I'm almost jealous of cancer. Autoimmune disease may be different from cancer, but no one should have to suffer through either one.

Sometimes during a casual conversation, a friend will say something like "Oh, I had the worst flu..." then cut themselves off in embarrassment. "I can't believe I'm complaining about the flu after everything you've gone through!" Don't feel too guilty. I hear myself bitching about my sore joints or funky nose and then think, There are so many people worse off than me. Why am I kvetching. Everyone has a different scale of suffering. But if you're wondering...you're right. Compared to whatever's bugging you, mine is probably much, much worse.

Still, I say, better to attempt to connect than avoid. If you're not sure what to say, I'll offer up a script, an illness Mad Lib of sorts. While all outreach is welcome, personally, I prefer a phone call. If you must write, send a truly thoughtful e-mail or a handwritten card. So old-fashioned, I know, but it's a valuable memento for your sick pal to hold on to while she wallows in bed watching repeats of Montel.

Okay, the script:

Please leave a message after the beep. (This is the other thing - don't expect your friend to pick up the phone if she's feeling rotten. Caller ID to the rescue, once again)

"Hi, (PATIENT'S NAME), it's (YOUR NAME). I heard about your (SICKNESS SITUATION). I'd really like to help you, but I'm not sure how. If you want to hang out, or if I can bring you food or something, I'd be really happy to. But for now, I just want to say that this sucks, and I'm thinking about you, and you don't have to call me back. The end."

The point is to tell your loved one that you're aware and you care (same goes for any bad news - job loss, breakup, death of a parent), Don't assume you'll have to hang out in hospital waiting rooms to change bedpans. Use your personal skill set to help your friend. If you love music, make your pal a great CD. If you have a car, offer a pickup or a drop-off at a doctor's office. If you have cash, by all means, buy an expensive gift. All efforts are appreciated. There are plenty of ways to show your love without impersonating Florence Nightingale.

Excerpted from Are You My Guru? by Wendy Shanker


Tudor Rose said...

Until I got to the very last line, where you say this was taken from a book, I sat there reading thinking "OMG, is Jenn sick? Like really sick?"

I feel better now.

Jenn said...

My dear, thank you for caring...I just put this up cos I thought it was useful. I never know what to do or say when someone is facing something. So, hey, a script.

And what a coincidence it should be you who comments. You'll know what I mean in a week. Or two.

Tudor Rose said...

Hmmm. Now you have me intrigued!

Actually, I had no idea Wendy Shanker wrote another book. Her "Fat Girl's Guide to Life" is one of my absolute favorites.