At the start of “All This”, the breast cancer chemo, the exacerbation of my mystery illness et al, I had a partner (and I use the term in the loosest possible sense) who simply had to outdo me on every symptom I had. It was a compulsion. Worse, it was a competition. Worse still, it was a competition I had no interest in winning. True, he really couldn’t compete on losing a body part to a life-threatening disease, but he did a damn fine job on presenting his suffering as so much “worse” (for which read, More Important) than anything I could possibly be experiencing.
“My back’s really hurting today,” I said once, staring pointedly at the one sofa which was long enough to lie down on, and which he was currently occupying to its full capacity. I was a few months post-surgery, and in the middle of chemo.
He stared straight back.
“Welcome to MY world,” said this delightful love of my life.
“Please, I really don’t think I can sit up.”
“You snooze, you lose,” he snipped back, referring to the amount of time I’d had the audacity to have been asleep for. I hadn’t made it downstairs til after lunchtime that day, and he was annoyed by that. HE’D struggled out of bed. HE’D fought through back pain. HE’D been quick enough to nab the long sofa for himself.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better……
The thing that got me about that wasn’t so much the lack of sympathy or consideration, it was more the lack of recognition for the endless sympathy and consideration I’d heaped on him and all of his many and varied health problems prior to the cancer knocking me for six – I swear to this day that he had fibro as well. I even bought a massage couch and did an hour and a half full body (and head, and feet – I have many hidden talents!) aromatherapy massage on him once. Just the once, because he didn’t enjoy it and didn’t want another one. The oils he chose stunk, the couch was the wrong shape, the face hole hurt, I wasn’t doing it right…….you get the idea. The point is, I’d tried so hard to help him with his problems (pain, insomnia, light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, weight gain, depression, anger, anxiety, agoraphobia, fatigue – you see why I think he had fibro?) for the whole 6 years we’d been together, and he’d rejected every single idea for helping him that I’d been asked to come up with.
I bought him a lightbox for his depression (his light sensitivity centred around not being able to stand LED displays on the TV equipment in the bedroom, he wasn’t averse to sunlight, just little lights in the dark. Guess astronomy was never on the cards for him,) but it gave him a headache.
I bought him a sunrise simulator alarm clock, to make waking up easier. He hated the LED display (my bad, I really should have seen that one coming).
I sent him to the doctor’s. Being a man, that went down like a lead brick. Doctor sent him to physio about his back and shoulders, and was no use about the depression. Just told him to stop wallowing and get up earlier. Physio gave him exercises to strengthen his core, and he refused to do them.
I bought different supplements, which he hysterically claimed “exploded into green froth coming out of my mouth!” He declined pain killers. He didn’t like our me-imposed Paleo diet, claiming it was the evil broccoli that was making him fat.
I frequently gave up the long sofa whenever I could see he was suffering – I dislike seeing anyone suffer.
In short, I had sympathised myself purple, trying to get him some relief from his myriad of symptoms. He was one of those people who only seem really happy when they can elevate their own suffering to a higher level than anyone else’s, and so he declined or derided any and every offer of help.
I think when my cancer hit, he was angry because felt out-done by it. He managed to be incredibly supportive for about……I was going to say “until chemo”, when he appeared to pass responsibility over to oncology, but it wasn’t even as long as that. A week or so of having to cook dinner while I was stuck in bed literally unable to move post-surgery and pre-chemo was enough for him. I asked tentatively one night at 8pm if we were going to be eating anything that night, and in response he threw an apple and a yoghurt onto my bed from the doorway before sullenly skulking off again. Anyway, it’s very sad and all that, but I think the prospect of losing the Pain and Problems competition was too much for him, and he lost his short temper over it.
But he isn’t the topic of this post. That can wait for another time. The point of this post is to highlight how easy it is to find yourself in the middle of a competition that someone else has entered you in, with the “winner” being the one in greatest suffering.
Let’s get something straight. Chronic illness, immediately life-threatening or not, sucks, period. We each of us suffer in our own, sometimes unique, way. We adopt and adapt different coping strategies. We adapt our lives, our expectations, sometimes our homes, in order to handle our illness. We come to some sort of acceptance. Sadly, it seems almost impossible to get our family, friends, acquaintances and others to adapt in a similar fashion.
What some people think is sympathy – Oh, I know! I had JUST the same thing happen to me on Friday! I was SO exhausted, I couldn’t go to work! (no, you had a self-induced hangover from doing shots at that leaving do that didn’t finish til 3am….) or, Oh, I know! My back’s been KILLING me! (and yet you seem to be moving freely) – comes off as one-upmanship. These and other seemingly minor health issues are clearly very significant to them, and are fairly obvious cries for a little bit of sympathy. But they break the unwritten Sympathy Code. Yes, whether you’re aware of it or not, there’s a definite Sympathy Code. It goes along the lines of “Don’t ask me to sympathise with your terrible athlete’s foot when I’ve just had my leg amputated”, sort of thing, but infringements of The Sympathy Code happen in every sphere of suffering.
Some of us are in more need of more sympathy than others. and any prior experience of Sympathy Code Infringements were put firmly into perspective at my first breast cancer support group meeting.
After basic introductions, we were invited to share more about where we were “on the cancer journey”. (Journey. Ha! Like it’s a day out to the seaside, or a trip to the Maldives, or to some other place with a beautiful, yearned-after destination. The cancer “journey” has an alarmingly limited number of destinations, the only yearned-after one is survival, and it’s rarely that beautiful in practice.) It rapidly became apparent that unless my tumour exceeded certain dimensions, I wasn’t about to find myself very high up the breast cancer hierarchy. I had naively assumed we were all in the same boat, and were there to mutually afford support, insight, comfort, encouragement and sympathy to each other. I was wrong. It was a shock to find that I was once again in unwilling competition.
One woman said, tremblingly, that her tumour had been 2cm when they found it. Another indignantly cut across her with, “Well, MINE was FIVE, so imagine how I felt!” Mine was only 4.5cm, so I didn’t feel able to compete.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better……..
Some had had lumpectomies, retaining the bulk of their breast, including the nipple. Others, like me, had had to have a radical mastectomy, where the whole lot is removed.
Anything You Can Do……….
Another woman raged about the unfairness of how chemo had destroyed her chances of a third, much longed for child; I had had my last possible chance of a first child removed in the same way, and at that point would have cheerfully killed to have had one, never mind two. I gazed in jealous disbelief.
Anything You Can Do……….
Another outdid all of us by pronouncing that she wasn’t frightened by having breast cancer. She truly seemed to believe that, although I am still at a loss to understand that. Cancer was terrifying to me. Still is.
Anything You Can Do……….
Then there were the ladies crocheting chemo hats for charity, or making jam, or running marathons to raise breast cancer awareness, doing 10km Moonwalks in their altered bras, sponsored swims…….the list of their achievements left me feeling inadequate, and like I was somehow letting the side down by being too ill to do any of them.
Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better……..
And I’m finding the same attitudes in the fibro community. I kind of expect it from Normals, those who simply have no comprehension of what someone with a chronic illness goes through every day. Yet pain, illness, all of it, it’s all relative to the individual. It’s no walk in the park to have to navigate illness on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter if you have severe fibro or mild fibro, fibro is a bitch. CFS is a bitch. ME is a bitch. Arthritis is a bitch. Disability is a bitch. Migraines are a bitch. Pain is a bitch. Depression is a bitch. Every chronic condition, physical, mental or emotional, is a bitch. None of it’s fair. All of it deserves sympathy and support because all of it matters intensely to the individual concerned; whether it matters to you as an outsider to that person’s life is immaterial, it matters to them.
So enough with the one-upmanship, enough of the competition, enough of the automatic ranking of someone else’s condition against yours. Isn’t it time we all of us developed a little more compassion?
What do you think? Do you think you deserve more sympathy than others with the same condition, if you perceive your experience of it to be worse than others’? Do you find yourself upping the stakes to win the adversity competition? Do you look down on other chronically ill people who seem to have got off more lightly than you? Are you jealous of those who seem to be coping better than you, or does it make you feel deficient?