August 4, 2021
Disclaimer: SickNotWeak does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. This content contains explicit and sensitive information that may not be suitable for all ages.
Words matter. Even small ones.
Actions matter. Even small ones.
Sometimes, words and acts are meaningless, hollow and empty.
When I filled out a form to write this, I was only given the options of sufferer, caregiver or friend. I don’t feel like a sufferer. I had no opportunity to call myself a survivor.
When my wife was diagnosed with cancer, it was a year to remember. Surgery, chemo, radiation and recovery. Fear and sleepless nights. We had so much support.
I had no opportunity to call myself a survivor.
People sent cards. They sent so much food we couldn’t eat it all. Our fridge and freezer were full. We had house cleaning services paid for. Friends and family were constantly asking how things were. I know they asked out of care and concern. It actually became a little wearing after a while.
This year, we both got COVID. We received so many get well messages. And home cooking dropped off at the front door. A friend went grocery shopping for us. A complete stranger dropped off a pulse oximeter so I could read my blood oxygen levels and know if I should to go to a hospital.
Just as with politics and religion (and in times of yore, cancer), being taught to avoid talking about psychiatric medical conditions has led to a lack of understanding. What we should be teaching each other is how to have those conversations. It is so easy to click like on a post or a hashtag for some online campaign.
It’s far more difficult to have a real conversation. In person. With another living person.
When I was diagnosed with Major Depression and Anxiety (both with features of Post-Traumatic Stress), the difference in people’s reactions couldn’t have been more stark. I was off work for two years. I got three cards. Total. One from my employer, one from a friend and one from my dad. No food. No messages. Silence.
A colleague in the same profession with a different employer remarked how quickly his employer would have gone into negotiation mode if an employee had been diagnosed with depression. I was surprised my friend sent me a card until he admitted he’d sent it because his wife made him do it. My dad remarked that he’d have a lot to learn in the near future. He admitted he didn’t understand and was willing to learn. It wasn’t easy for him. And he still accepts me. Others made my medical situation about themselves. My drama created stress for them.
My psychiatrist told my wife to have patience with me as I had (explicitly and implicitly) learned growing up that people didn’t want to hear what I had to say. I was told I needed to start telling people the unvarnished truth instead of keeping everything inside. I was told to start talking to someone (anyone!), just one person about one thing that I had kept in for years. It was overwhelming. I hadn’t told anyone my honest thoughts… ever.
I asked my sister something out of concern for her, her husband and her children. She interpreted what I had asked as criticism and that morphed into telling others something I hadn’t said. Everyone believed her. Not one person asked me if I had even said it. In the end, it appeared to me my family was more concerned about who I would tell than if I lived or died.
I was told that a negative reaction from family is normal.
I was told that a negative reaction from family is normal. They want me to get healthy as long as nothing else changes. They certainly wouldn’t want my health to challenge their views of the world or me or even of how they saw perceived I viewed the world.
The doctor was right. I’d never said anything because I knew the reaction I would get. And so predictably, I got it. Other than my dad, I haven’t spoken in anyone in my family for several years now. I’m told friends can replace family. But what of those family-centric occasions when I’m really not part of someone’s family?
And what does family mean? My foster family who were traumatized when their little brother was taken away? My maternal biological connection with people who live thousands of kilometers away and I don’t know very well? The family who was the reason I was hospitalized and put into foster care? My paternal biological connections? Most of whom I have never met?
I know a high school principal who told his entire school he had depression on the last day of work before he retired. He wanted to give both staff and students hope. It saddened me that he didn’t feel safe saying anything until the very end.
All my decisions would be questioned.
I was once on a conference organizing committee addressing mental health and wellness. The goal was reducing stigma and raising hope. This was before I was diagnosed. I offered to tell my life story. My boss was so wrong and so right. All my decisions would be questioned. I wasn’t someone who could fly in, give a speech and fly out. People I worked with would hear what I said and know. If I told anyone, every decision I made would be met with speculative conjecture.
When I was off work, so many supporters let me know I didn’t have to tell them the details aka “I just want to have lunch. I don’t really want to hear the details.” I’ve since disclosed to many people. The heads averted in awkward embarrassment at not knowing what to say were expected. As was the silence. A few said something supportive or appreciative.
Men have been told we need to speak up. We can. We’ve learned that not many really want to hear it. In person. I’m not sick. I’m managing a medical condition, just as an asthmatic or someone with diabetes would. I can survive, thrive, flourish, flounder or languish just as anyone who doesn’t have depression or anxiety. I can’t help people who avoid talking. And for my health, I won’t.
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