This is part four of an 11-part series of blog excerpts written by Bea V. Larsen, JD, Center for Resolution of Disputes. These eleven blogs also appeared in Care Management Journals, Volume 15, Number 1, 2014. Full sample downloads of this journal are available here.
Minor ailments were barely acknowledged in my family as I was growing up. Sickness was spoken of as something that, with proper living, could be avoided. The illness of others was often deemed psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with the underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.
In my husband Len’s final year, I became intimately involved with his persistent pain. He was stoical, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.
On our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often as follows: on a scale of 1–10, how’s the pain? I would be dismayed when Len answered 9. Scans had shown that compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause. Although I was silent, I was embarrassed by his admission.
Then, not long ago, I came across a study which concluded that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. However, the findings of the investigation were counterintuitive. Those persons who made the effort to describe their pain, in some detail, were better able to cope with the pain.
I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well, and I had the research in mind when I was consulted by a young friend whose husband had suffered a mental collapse. The man she dearly loved had become a stranger to her and was resisting treatment.
I asked whether she had talked things over with family and friends: She had not. Remaining hopeful that somehow her nightmare would reverse itself and all would be set right again, she was protecting their privacy and avoiding the embarrassment of disclosure. And, she reasoned, she did not want to worry her family before her own future plans became more clear.
My suggestion was that she not put off sharing her story. If asked about future plans, she could simply express uncertainty about what lay ahead.
I told her about another friend who, some years ago, had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Within hours, she began to tell those who were close to her: “I remember being surprised, in part because I suspected my own reaction would have been just the opposite: to tell no one until it became essential that I did so.” Upon hearing her news, many rallied ‘round expressing concern and support. That outpouring of attention and care buoyed her well-being. A valuable lesson learned, and now shared.
But, some months ago, at a routine physical, I had a scare. An ultrasound was ordered, followed by an MRI. Then, of course, the wait for results.
Despite my friend’s experience and my advice to another, I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure was premature. But my facial expression belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I e-mailed my kids, giving them the details.
The reduction in stress was palpable. Soon the reassuring news came that all was well. Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone?
Was I still responding to the old parental message that illness was in some way a moral flaw, not being the person “mother wanted me to be”?
Well, there is bound to be a next time. The study results, and my recent experience, will hopefully silence my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful, to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life.
The marvelous truth is that by being self-disclosing to friends and loved ones, we invite others to be equally disclosing when their need arises. It is a gift to ourselves and others to be able to share bad news as well as the good. We send the message that we will be there for them when it is their story that needs to be told. And, in the meantime, it lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.