Chris Matcham 2019.

 

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  • Chris

The "Bad News Guy" doesn't have to be lonely

Sufferers of chronic illnesses think a lot about their disease: How they feel, how much they are able to do, whether they will be able to complete their plans for the day; do they feel well enough to meet up with a friend for coffee, let alone go out for drinks later that evening?

Understandably then, when someone asks them how they're doing, the first thing that comes to mind may invariably be something like, "not great, but I'm just doing as much as I can". However, it is not always easy to be that honest about how we're feeling, as those social pleasantries we use to help everyone feel better exert their influence time and again. "I'm fine..." they might say, "...just a bit tired".


The difficulty in being honest comes not from an attempt to convince themselves that they are feeling better than they do or because of any sense of denial about their situation (as with the all-consuming limitations being imposed on them by their conditions, this is an almost impossible task), but as with those dealing with many types of invisible illness, to convince others that they do not need to burden themselves with one's own struggles.

The objective is to have a conversation which is not focused on (or even mentions) the condition and the so-called "bravery" for living through it, but to just attempt a "normal" chat about everyday things, without the illness defining their social interactions: It is already embedded in their thoughts and bodies throughout every single day.


The problem with showing honesty about the way that they are struggling, every day, to complete things that able-bodied people (and they themselves were probably previously able to) do without thinking, does not usually make for an easy exchange of ideas and a happy back-and-forth of banter and bonhomie. Being the "bad news guy" could be very easy, as the ongoing gamut of hospital appointments, changes in medication, deterioration in the condition, as well as the day-to-day physical difficulties and mental struggles can be forefront in their minds and important to talk about.


Most other people cannot immediately understand what these issues are like to endure and it may leave them feeling put on the spot, possibly stifled by the comparison with their own struggles: The valid, anxiety-provoking issues that are causing them personal turmoil can be mistakenly made to seem less "worthy" when confronted with a life-limiting illness such as a chronic condition. In the same way that some people can denigrate their own anxieties because they know people who have so-called "real" problems (such as having recently experienced the bereavement of a loved one, for example), talking about chronic conditions, seemingly pretty high up on this "suffering hierarchy", can leave those who aren't going through the same experience feeling that they cannot express that which is maybe most close to their heart.

In this scenario, with one person effectively excluded from the conversation, there is an obvious loss of expression and any meaningful interaction will gradually, but in the end, decisively have the kibosh applied to it, leaving both participants unsatisfied with the conversation.

So, maybe it's easier to deflect from any problems we're having, for the sake of a nice natter.


The above statement may be true, but unsurprisingly might mean that needs for meaningful human contact are not fully met: An inability to create a dynamic dialogue, keeping conversation only at a surface level, reduces the benefit that is felt, eventually leading to it feeling pointless and possibly even unpleasant, as we feel that we would rather be talking to our pot-plants, or any other inanimate object in the near vicinity.


After an extended time without deeper interaction, how much can we estimate is left unsaid, solely for the benefit others' feelings? Eventually, the answer to this question will be "too much", and feelings of being unable to talk to friends/relatives/people at the garden centre* can lead to a sense of disconnection from the world around us and, at worst, isolation and loneliness.


So, modifications need to be made to the way we communicate, in order to bring us back into our "social lives":


These altered techniques could include a more flexible way of approaching the illness and how others may view it: People that you don't know very well don't need to know everything about how you're feeling and may only need to be informed that you suffer from a particular condition for them to understand your difficulties. Friends who know about your struggles should be able to accept what you can and can't do, so mentioning your illness becomes redundant.


The distinct focus that a chronic illness becomes for a sufferer's life can create a loss of perspective on how others may feel in the interaction with them and it. Some people will be able to understand and some need a little more information, but isolating ourselves in order to avoid any feeling of discomfort will simply reinforce the idea that we cannot approach the topic of the illness with others, stopping us from experimenting with different ways of getting the social contact that we want and need.


Chronic illnesses create a need for many adjustments, as new physical and mental realities emerge: There is a natural sadness in gradually losing the abilities that once existed and the person that might once have been, as future goals become less viable and progress towards them is slowed or halted. Social interaction is one of these aspects; necessary for good mental health, but difficult to become accustomed to within a different context.


There is help available: Counselling is a way to express how your illness affects you physically and emotionally. You can examine the ways in which you might be prioritising negative information about yourself and others over the capability to change your situation that you already possess. Person-to-person interaction is required and can therefore be practised, before applying it to the real world outside of the therapy room.


Things can change and you can change them - there is no need to be lonely.


*where your pot-plants are acquired.