In her latest column "The hardest thing about having an invisible illness," McLaren confesses to "the arrogant thinking of the healthy majority." A bad ear infection that has impaired her hearing in one ear -- perhaps temporarily, perhaps not -- has given her new insight and empathy for others living with illness. An excerpt:
It’s strangely unpleasant, this process of being forced into the ranks of the invisibly unwell. But it’s made me more aware of people whose lives are constricted by ill health, whose struggles we generally ignore because they aren’t bleeding or limping or anything. And most of them learned long ago to keep their suffering to themselves.
“Never, ever, speak publicly about illness,” a very WASPy family friend once advised me. “No one’s actually interested. Unless you’re dying – but in that case, why bother?”
I always agreed with this advice, though being a healthy person, I’ve never had cause to heed it. In truth, I was a callous and unfeeling member of the healthy majority. Because I was so rarely ill, I found it hard to take people’s unseen illnesses seriously. If a friend cancelled for the second time because she was “still feeling under the weather,” I’d make sympathetic noises and think, “What a wuss.” I took stories of what I considered to be “real” illness seriously – cancer, stroke, heart failure, MS, traumatic childbirth and car-crash-related spinal injuries – but mention the words “chemical sensitivity” or “chronic fatigue” and I’d inwardly roll my eyes.
Just as it sometimes serves the rich to believe the poor are really just lazy, it sometimes suits the healthy to believe the sick are actually weak.
If you’d accused me of this, I would have denied it, but looking back I think that’s what I secretly believed: that invisibly ailing people should really just suck it up and get over themselves. And if they couldn’t, the least they should do was shut up about it.
Curled on my office sofa for days, fuzzed on decongestants with a heating pad flung uselessly over my head, I realized how very wrong I had been.This really resonated with me -- after all, is there any illness/disease that's more invisible than infertility? Until & unless you have faced pregnancy loss and/or infertility yourself, they are topics that are generally not on your radar, and that you're not comfortable discussing.
(I remember a meeting of our pg loss support group, where a regular attendee, D., brought a friend, V., who had sadly just experienced a stillbirth of her own. "I thought I had been a good friend to D. when she lost her baby. I had NO IDEA," V. confessed to us, laughing wryly through her tears, while D. gave her a huge hug.)
Likewise, I never gave too much thought to food allergies, & secretly thought some parents were overreacting by demanding nut-free schools and the like -- until I started breaking out in hives and getting a scratchy feeling in my throat every time I put a piece of tomato in my mouth. My reactions have been far less serious than what some people experience -- but they have been scary enough. I have gained a whole new respect for what these families go through.
While experience is obviously -- sadly -- the best teacher, and we might not know how to make things better when the people around us are suffering, we can certainly try not to make things worse by minimizing the situation they find themselves in or avoiding them all together.
A little empathy can go a long, long way.