Before my ex-husband and I got together, I did for a moment consider if two sick people was a really bad idea. I asked myself ‘do two wrongs make a right?’. Well technically no they don’t, but on the other hand, being the sick one in a relationship with someone who is well and cannot relate to you is torture, similarly being well and dating someone who is not has got to be pretty grueling. After all, who wants to listen to someone complaining about their health? Don’t we want to feel inspired and invigorated in a relationship, not brought down and dismal. Truth is as we get older illness is a reality, if its not one its the other’s health that will decline, perhaps that’s inevitable.
So how to cope with each others misfortunes without loosing the bond that brought us together? This is where empathy comes into play. Empathy I discovered throughout my life, is a very rare life skill to posses. Not many people seem to have mastered it and not many care to either. I wonder whether empathy could be the ultimate test of enlightenment, I bet Buddha was an early proponent of empathy. So what exactly is empathy?
The Oxford English Dictionary says empathy is ‘The ability to understand and share the feelings of another’. Simple right? wrong. Receiving empathy as someone with a chronic illness can be like trying to get blood out of a stone. In part this may be because often chronic illness’s can be invisible and people judge a person by how they look. This is understandable, but I have been met often with suspicion, even been treated as someone who is looking for attention. Truth is after so many years being ill but being denied I am ill by the medical profession (even after a Lyme D diagnosis), I learned how to suffer quietly. A friend once messaged me after she learned I had been diagnosed, and said ‘but how come you never seemed ill?’, like I must be faking it. What is hard to explain is that I always did feel ill, it dominated so much of my everyday life that I often had to have a drink to get away from feeling ill. The anxiety I experienced, the pain, the depression, without any medical support I turned to the only other support I knew. But oh how I suffered afterwards, and so continued the cycle of suffering. What people don’t tend to consider is that you don’t see sick people on their bad days, and that the reason why we hide away for such long periods is not that we are crap friends, but that we are suffering and don’t want to be seen that way, or know how to express it.
I suspect there is a lot of people out there who’s lives are but a shadow of what they could have been because of a misdiagnosis, and often these people are made to feel degraded by relying on benefits, and sometimes relying on medications. But hardly ever will they receive empathy, quite the opposite, often society condemn such people as scroungers and are despised.
You cannot see a bacterial infection such as Lyme D, and its many co-infections. So when you decide that someone does not deserve your concern because they look OK, think again.
I suppose I learned about empathy through being sick myself, I am genuinely interested in listening to people who are sick, and I want them to know that I understand how they feel. So why is it so hard for other people to do so? Maybe they have never been sick before? Or maybe they feel, for whatever reason, they have a harder time of it than you? What I discovered is that there is often a competition for empathy, sometimes people you meet feel that they are worse off than you. Maybe they have rarely experienced empathy from others also? Such is the nature of this evasive little life skill. Comparing situations is childlike, without walking in another shoes how can one judge how another is feeling?
As a person with chronic illness’s I have to ‘fake it’ every day. What has given me strength is other ‘Lymies’, when you think you got it bad you always meet or hear someone else who has it equally as tough or tougher. We find that its common to be treated like we are actually faking the illness rather than faking the wellness, and often see a stark contrast between those who are diagnosed with a condition such as Cardio-Vascular disease or even Cancer. People stumble over themselves to support people with these more well known conditions, yet chronic illness is treated with suspicion. Personally I think it exposes a fundamental flaw in the ‘human condition’, and that is our need for endorsement or validation, before we are willing to give our care, our concern. Indeed I see it as a great weakness of human nature.
I discovered that despite how sick I felt, I still had a lot to give, and I gave those around me the empathy they needed, at my darkest times I found I could give even when I was not receiving. Perhaps it is the cornerstone of humanity, but it can be a thankless task that can be taken for granted, and so for those who give empathy, I salute you! and those who need empathy, cherish it! Hold it dear, it is a ruby in a mountain of rocks.