I never got the whole illness = stigma thing. I know there are a lot of people who make judgments about illnesses and the people who have them, I just never got it.
I have depression. And looking back, this cloud’s been over my head since I was about 10 years old. It wasn’t until I got older that I knew what it was, older still when I learned how to treat it, and older still when I learned that my grandmother had depression. My mom has depression. It’s a chemical imbalance, for crying out loud. It runs in my family. I’m going to keep it secret and be ashamed of a chemical imbalance? Please.
But there are a lot of people out there who, once they learn you have depression, treat you like a pariah. Grow the hell up. It takes a hell of a lot of strength to combat depression, let me tell you. The late, great Mike Wallace would have told you that. And who didn’t like Mike Wallace? (Okay, not counting the people he stripped naked and hung on a hook for public viewing in an interview.)
Homosexuality. There’s another instant (non-illness) stigma. The time that staying away from someone, or some group, takes could be better spent drinking a beer, watching a movie, or actually being tolerant and not giving a rat’s ass.
I feel the same way about cancer. I never thought anyone with cancer was someone from whom I should stay away at all costs. The person is sick by something over which they had no control. Not sick, even. Invaded and ravaged. The weird part comes when you don’t know what to say. I’ll give you that. I never knew what to say. I always just tried to offer my help and to let the person know I cared. I always thought it wasn’t enough.
But you know what? It turns out that it’s just enough. And it’s awesome.
My sarcasm, a finely honed art that took a lifetime of dysfunctional families, effed up coworkers, and general douchbaggery to perfect, usually sets me up to minimize offers of help. It’s not that I don’t appreciate them; I just don’t get all touchy-feely about it.
But in the last week I can honestly say that I’ve learned that you don’t need to get all touchy-feely to appreciate a sincere gesture on the part of friends and coworkers. Anyone worth their salt knows that a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing event. People who care want to let you know that they give a damn about you. And you need to let them give that damn.
In the wake of “the news,” I got on the interwebs and tried to get information. Every time I see these websites with “community” I groan. The only time I get involved with a virtual community is when I upload a picture of my knitting project to Ravelry or want to find out spoilers for the next Mad Men episode on Television Without Pity. Cancer communities? Not for me.
Turns out it’s not so bad. In the first couple of days I was having trouble wrapping my head around the news. Any article about “dealing” was useless. Everything seemed targeted toward a woman who had kids, a husband, a loving family, and won the Miss Congeniality crown in the Miss Teenage America Pageant in 1979 (not really, it just felt that way). So I went to a discussion board on the National Breast Cancer Foundation site and put out a query: “How do you wrap your head around this? Do you ever wrap your head around this?”
One reply. Two replies. Three. Four. Five, and counting. Women I had never met were reaching out, wishing me well, and sharing their experiences. And, you know what? I didn’t feel so alone anymore. It was okay to tell someone and reach out. So then I told a good friend. Turns out she was a 10-year survivor of ovarian and uterine cancer. She was so helpful and so supportive. If I had never reached out, I would have been that much poorer without a supportive friend.
Then I told another friend. And then another. I told my supervisor. His wife is a breast cancer survivor and he understood and is overwhelmingly supportive and understanding. I told my staff and some folks with whom I work closely and who may well be affected by unscheduled days or parts of days that I am out of the office. Every single person has been compassionate and kind.
So reach out. This dyed-in-the-wool cynic and purveyor of sarcastic wit reached out and didn’t melt. It’s harmless. And the best part is that it makes your friends feel good and it makes you feel supported.
And like a good underwire bra, what we breast friends need is good support.