Thursday, June 7, 2007

Competitive Suffering

I have seen in myself and others who live with serious illness the tendency to compare and judge the severity of another’s maladies. Strangely, it can be almost a sense of superiority that underlies the need to pronounce “My boo boo is bigger than your boo boo” and therefore write someone off as a “baby” or insensitive to the people with real problems.

Conversely, I have seen many people be afraid to share their difficulties with someone like me because “they have no right to complain when they see what other people are dealing with”. The question I pose: Isn’t there enough compassion to go around?

Example 1:

I am extremely lucky to have wonderful friends who have been with me through thick and thin. They have seen me through dark times of terrible physical and emotional struggles. They have been at my bedside when I was close to death and when I was recovering from transplant surgery. They have seen it all.

I have one friend in particular who, though mostly healthy, has had some of her own health challenges. She has dealt with kidney problems, inexplicable stomach pains and Lyme’s Disease. In addition, she has had some emotionally bumpy times, most notably when her heart was breaking over the end of a 7 year relationship.

Despite the “validity” of her hardships, she is often very reluctant to share them with me. She maintains the idea that I have had enough of my own troubles and relaying hers would only be a burden to me. I have repeatedly assured her that I am her friend and I want to be there for her, the same way she has been there for me. Nonetheless, she can’t seem to shake the perception that my problems are bigger than hers and she should just keep them to herself. This makes me very sad.

Example 2:

After my first transplant, the steroids I was taking beat up my pancreas so much that I became diabetic. This was a whole new frontier for me and I had a few weeks of physical distress while I was learning how to care for this new disease.

I have (had) another friend who is the opposite of the friend I described in the above example. She is usually in crisis mode, more often emotionally than physically. One evening, during this difficult time, she came over to my house unexpectedly. I was having terrible stomach pains and was really unable to talk much. I told her as much and she took that as a cue to talk at me about all of her woes. I think it was about her mother, again. I told her that I was in pain and I started to cry. This new diagnosis had hit me hard and I was worried. She stared at me blankly, let some silent time pass and then resumed her story about her mother. I eventually had to ask her to leave.

This kind of exchange happened many more times. When I was dying the second time, I had come clean and told her that I thought she was a fair-weather friend. She seemed to disappear during my hard times and come around for advice and comfort when I was feeling better. She apologized and said she understood. We gave our friendship another try.

A few weeks later, I had my second transplant. When I was at home recovering the phone rang. I didn’t answer it because I wasn’t up to talking to anyone. The message she left on my answering machine was one of pure panic and horror. It sat bolt upright and made my way to the phone as soon as possible. Right before I answered it, I heard what she said was causing her so much distress: her hairdresser had colored her hair too dark and she wanted to know what she could do to fix it. That was the last straw for me. I decided I didn’t need that kind of inflated hysteria around me anymore and I cut her out of my life.

Example 3:

Before transplant, our center requires patients to attend a bi-monthly support group. There we learned about what we would be facing both in the surgery and the recovery. Part of the meeting was to let newly transplanted people tell their stories. Things like, “How long were you on the vent?” And “How many days were you in the hospital?” were high priority questions. We were all, or so I suspect, inwardly comparing ourselves to the people who had gone before us.

It felt like a lifeline when the patients spoke as if transplant was ‘a piece of cake’. Fear pulsed through me when people relayed stories of great difficulty and pain. When people died, it was almost too much to consider.

The obvious truth, however, is that none of those people were me. After all was said and done, none of their experiences matched mine. While they provided me with an anecdotal encyclopedia of possibilities, comparisons were futile and meaningless. When you are embarking on a journey that is so strange and mysterious, it is only human nature to want to apply others' outcomes to your future. Finding a way to take in the story without processing it as your own is very difficult. Difficult, yes, but certainly something to strive for and keep in mind…Compare Not!

The Verdict:

When you have a serious or chronic illness, it can be easy to discount the people around you. To hear someone complain because they have the common cold can seem like an insult. After all, theirs will go away, right? How dare they seek sympathy for something so minor and temporary. If only my greatest problem was a cold!

I must confess, I have had these thoughts and feelings in my life. I have had these feelings and then I got a cold. Wow! Having a cold is miserable! Does the pain I suffer from a broken leg counteract the suffering that comes from a paper cut so that it somehow ceases to be suffering? No. A broken leg is painful and so is a paper cut. They co-exist and are both forms of physical pain. Because one is more severe than the other does not cancel out the latter's existence. For me to discount another’s suffering based on a comparison to my own is simply a result of self-pity. Ideally, I can have compassion for them as well as for myself.

With that said, there is a sensitivity that is appreciated when one is engaging someone in physical or emotional turmoil. When I am on a ventilator, please respect my desire for light conversation! When I am doubled over in pain, please acknowledge my need for peace. When I am dying, please respect my boundaries and limits of energy.

To answer the question I posed above: Yes, there is plenty of compassion to go around. Patients may need to make a conscious effort to give compassion to someone other than themselves. Caregivers may need to make a conscious effort to give themselves permission to acknowledge their own suffering as valid. We all may need to work on being sensitive to each other’s personal struggle. And every once in a while, we may need to part ways because we don’t have enough energy to give to each other’s wounds. There is compassion in all of these things.


Laurie said...

Ah, such an important topic..and one I've written about a lot, in my blog, on, and in my book!! As usual, your writing resonates so strongly with's complicated and nuanced, but in the end, no one has the market on suffering and the healthy and the sick have competing rights to compassion...if only it were that easy in practice!! Thanks so much for sharing.

Keep on writing!

(And I will def. e-mail you details on agents and all that--bear with me, it's coming, I promise!)

Joanna said...

A very important topic, indeed. I can't even count the number of times that friends of mine have come to me (even when I am going through a particularly tough headache day) and complain about having a headache. Just a headache! I remind them that they can take Tylenol and it will be gone in 20-30 min. "Ugh, but it's just so annoying..." Mmmhmm... try 3.5 years! I had to lose a friend as well over that type of issue, as well.