If you ask

be prepared to listen to the answer.  Queen’s post got me thinking about how and when and why people ask things like “how are you?” “are you getting better/worse?” and “are you ok?”

This is my single best piece of advice I can give to anyone who is struggling to find ways to support a friend or loved one who is experiencing an illness – really any long term crisis or effects of trauma.  As a child abuse survivor and a person with chronic often debilitating health problems, I run into these sorts of questions with some regularity.  As a younger adult, I was not great at navigating them.  I’m getting better.  For example, I now know to preemptively tailor my discourse depending on my relationship with the asker and their level of “needing to know”.  Work and casual acquaintances get a limited version unless more detail is necessary for some practical purpose (e.g. continuing sick leave or ability to travel).  Friends and family though, they are tough because they should care when they ask, that should be why they are asking, but often I find that they don’t.  It’s probably inaccurate to say every time I get the “then why the fuck did you ask?” feeling, it’s because the asker doesn’t care, even when they act carelessly.  They may just be asking or reaching out for the wrong reason.  Here are some of the wrong reasons I’ve encountered, roughly in order of least to most problematic:

  • Reassurance.  This is by far the most common one I’ve experienced.  The “reassure me that you are ok because I am so worried about you!” line of inquiry.  I call foul on this one because come on, the last thing someone who is suffering with burdens like this needs is to have to candy coat stuff for a friend or family member.  Better not to ask, but do something nice or helpful for them.  And if you are so paralyzed by fear and concern for your friend or family member that you can’t even bring yourself to do something, then a quick “I’m thinking of you” is a reasonable way to reach out without burdening your friend or family member to selectively share with you so YOU feel better.  Sometimes your friend or loved one doesn’t really want to get into it, sometimes s/he does but only if s/he feels that the listener is going to LISTEN.  Another uncaring ear is not what is needed right now, and ears that are attached to heads that are full of only self concern are, in some ways, worse than uncaring – they are demandingly uncaring.
  • Guilt.  Haven’t called in a while?  Haven’t “been there” for your friend?  Feeling bad about it and want to show that you aren’t a big jerk?  Well, odds are your friend would appreciate a nice gesture or maybe even a chance to talk, but s/he is unlikely to be thinking very much about how much you suck.  See, s/he is wrapped up in his/her own world of shit and is not sitting around ruminating about how much better life would be if only good old so-and-so would drop a line.  If you decide to do something out of guilt, try to be more sensitive to your friend or loved one than to come across as punching a friendship time clock.  If you can’t muster up a sincere effort, then see my advice above or just leave it until you are ready and really actually WANT to be there for your friend.
  • Obligation.  Much like the guilt one, except more likely to happen in families.  See guilt for most of it.  I’d add that if you are in fact the family of someone in a bad situation, and if you’re not an asshole, you really should try to at least be practically helpful now and then.  Think about what you legitimately can do without putting yourself out too much though.  People with chronic illnesses can be mighty sensitive to any whiff of grudging, resentful assistance or listening.  Therefore, if you can’t do something with a genuine, sincere heart, in most cases you may as well keep your help to yourself because if your friend picks up on your attitude, it’s going to suck.  If you are wondering what things would be appreciated or helpful and don’t think you can or want to ask the person, ask someone who actually IS there for them.  That person will likely have some good ideas, even if it’s for ways to help them so they can better support your friend or family member.
  • Martyrdom.  Yes, it happens.  The trauma/drama vampires.  I don’t have too much to do with them, I think I’m not really needy enough for them.  I have run into a few at work.  They love to hear all
    edited screen shot from Nosferatu with dialogue bubble reading "Oh did you hear about Carol?  The Poor thing!"

    * gossiping coworker or trauma vampire?

    about the troubles of others.  It makes them feel as if they are being compassionate.  They are, however, not deeply invested in other people’s troubles and there is a certain perversion that will creep in.  They will likely share private information with others so that they can express their compassion and receive social approval for it.  There is no advice I have for these people because they are sick, truly fucked up individuals on whom any advice would be wasted.  My advice is for everyone else:  keep away!  If you’re the target of their “compassion”, learn to change the subject.  Ask them about their mother or something.  If you’re just a friend or member of the network who is now being regaled with tales of a tragically sick colleague, classmate, friend, or distant family member, at a minimum, do not reward this parasite with praise or anything positive.  Ideally, if you’re up for it, you can consider a subtle reprimand like “wow, I had no idea so-and-so was dealing with so much. And she’s ok with you telling everyone about this?” and if you’re a good, stand up person and want to help, or just offer support, reach out directly – not through the trauma vampire – and tactfully.

As a person who daily deals with limits which are sometimes impossible for me, I would honestly prefer patience, compassion, and respect than a possibly misdirected demand for me to brief you on my troubles.  I’d trade all the flowers and cards and abbreviated visits and meandering awkward conversations for that.

* Photo © 2009 Nosferatu photo by King Chimpcreative commons license

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  1. oh my gosh. well put

    I find these questions so hard to take. And the expectation of a positive answer too much to bear

    • It’s tough. I’m going to have to work on a whole set of responses for returning to work next week. Thinking about things like “oh you don’t want to hear about that!” At least for the vampires.


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