The Hurtful Question My Friend Asked Me About My Illness

I’m cutting spring onions in the kitchen and my friend is telling me about her broken heart, about the difficulties of being alone after a long-lasting relationship. Eventually she asked me, “And what about you?”

I’m answering honestly because it seems that’s the way we’re talking right now. Briefly I describe how burdensome the symptoms feel those days.

She says, “But you’re still focusing on things other than your illness, aren’t you?“ The delicate, filmy undertone of an accusation immediately put me in a defensive mode.

“Sure, sure. I do lots of other things,” I say and culpably remember the hours I spent today reading blogs and articles of people with the same condition in search of remedies.

“Alright, then,” she replies. I nod and realize several hours later why I had been so angry since that moment in the kitchen.

Why did this question hurt so much?

Because it implies two options.

Firstly, it implies that I should be able to focus on other things because it is unlikely that the symptoms are so bad that I cannot be distracted by other, more pleasant things. This devaluates my experience of the last few weeks, in which the illness again and again positioned itself between me and the outside world. It devaluates my experience based on some random assumption of how good or bad I might feel.

Or secondly, it implies that I am able to focus on other things, even if it were that bad, because I always have a choice. It implies that you can always “try to make the best of it.” That’s true, except for those moments when you can’t. If you spoke solely in manner of mindfulness, I could maybe see your point: Sensations are sensations, suffering occurs by connecting it to future and past in form of sadness, angst, hopelessness and all the other participant of this bizarre circus.

But the mentioned mechanism works with all the experiences. And concerning her broken heart, I’m not telling her, “Are you aware of the fact that the awful aching in your chest is primarily a sensation? You’re making a choice to struggle by connecting it to concepts such as loneliness, disappointment, expectation and your big empty bed. Don’t get tangled up, just focus on the bright side of life!“

It would be quite shitty to say that, even if it was true concerning “enlightenment.” But that’s not the manner we usually talk to each other.

So, her question either implies that I am able to focus on other things because it is not that bad, because overcoming suffering is metaphysically always possible. Both seem derogatory to me and show me that I obviously wasn’t able to communicate in a way that reached her. And it shows me that she believes to know quite a lot about me – how I feel and what I’m supposed to do. Unfortunately, she has less knowledge than me in both areas. That’s why her question joins the group of “stupid things people with chronic and invisible illnesses tend to hear.”

You know, I think I understand where these words come from. She probably meant well, and I can see a danger in getting caught up in worries after consulting Dr. Google, too. And maybe my friend isn’t able to assess my situation because I communicate badly. But communication is difficult when the things you want to share seem like whining – even in your own head. Especially when you realize that the description of your state can be quite a mood killer in conversations. Maybe that’s because such topics remind us of death and all the versatilely difficult illnesses, that hit probably someone we care about in the not too distant future.

Maybe we don’t want to remember the uncomfortable and nasty things that accompany our decaying bodies. If I do not want to be reminded, I try to calm myself and others with phrases such as, “It will get better,“ or, “You should really try (insert idea here) it cured the sister of the cousin of my colleague.”

If we strive for a society and a culture of conversation which are based less on violence and more on empathy, or if we don’t care about humanity and the planet, but we’d like to have a great conversation in some flat-sharing kitchen – it might be helpful to question such sentences. If my friend would ask, “Are you able to focus on other things at the moment?“ I could answer her, “No, most of the time not, because the pain is so close and anxiety is screaming pretty loud, but I’m so glad that you asked.”

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