Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Minimize, Maximize, Equalize

I've often heard that the worst thing to do to a person with a serious illness is to "minimize" the disease or the emotions associated with coping with it.

I'm happy to report that this has not been the case for me. As a matter of fact, if anything, my friends have been guilty of "maximizing" the issue. After I returned from "round one" at City of Hope, I was surprised at how often friends pulled their punches when describing their problems and issues. I often heard an apologetic, "I shouldn't even be sharing this with you because it pales compared to what you're going through" or "I don't want to stress you out, but. . ."

The most extreme case of minimizing personal problems and maximizing mine came from a woman who was on my GirlTalk committee at the Pasadena YWCA. She called to discuss moving forward on an idea for promoting an anti-bullying program. I asked her to call the Y's executive director and went on to explain my health circumstances.

She began to share with me her own personal health challenges, but stopped herself midstream and offered an apology for "burdening" me while I was going through something so serious. As it turned out, she was recovering from a long bout with meningitis. I was grateful that I knew something about the serious challenges of this disease because my friend Tara, who had just visited from Virginia, went through a year from hell with meningitis.

But, in spite of the very serious challenges and fears, in some ways, my friend Tara had it lucky. She had a husband to support her financially, emotionally and physically. My Y friend is a single mom, so she had no choice but to continue working through severe pain and emotional agony during the worst of her meningitis. And she was (and is) alone in the rigors of raising a pre-teen daughter. Worst of all, doctors were guilty of minimizing her illness, assuming it couldn't be that bad if she was getting up and going to work every day. She still suffers daily with chronic pain and sleepless nights and cannot find relief from pain medications.

I felt humbled because I know this woman is a conscientious employee and devoted mother. And yet she was still making time to pursue an issue she felt passionate about.

Another friend, who is good about checking in for a chat every week, apologetically described her stressful week, which included bullying in her workplace, a trip to the emergency room and the sudden, accidental death of a neighbor. By comparison, my stress-free week at home was like a mini vacation.

But comparison is where we get into the most trouble. Not when we have the "aha" moments and realize that we don’t have it so bad compared to millions of others with worse problems and struggles. The trouble comes when we compare and come to the conclusion that OUR problems are worse.

I was guilty of doing exactly that while reading Cancer Vixen, a brilliant graphic memoir by Marisa Acocella Marchetto, a cartoonist whose work has appeared in the New Yorker and the New York Times. She’s a self-described "shoe-crazy, lipstick-obsessed, wine-swilling, pasta-slurping, fashion-fanatic, single-forever, about-to-get-married big-city girl cartoonist with a fabulous life" who finds out she has a lump in her breast.

I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough as I laughed and cried through Marisa’s graphic depiction of her life.

And then three quarters of the way through the book, I found out that Marisa’s breast cancer was localized, stage one. I actually put the book down and thought, “All of this drama over stage one?”

And then I immediately had to deal with the guilt of copping a judgmental attitude about someone else’s very real struggles and emotions. Those have nothing to do with the size of the lump or the staging of the cancer.

When we compare and come to the conclusion that our problems are worse, we leave ourselves wide open for a pity party. Worse yet, we loose the ability to empathize and connect with others. And that's what makes life worth living.

Please keep on sharing with me stories about your challenging children, your frustrating husbands, your bout with the flu, your crazy-making clients and editors, your unrequited loves, your unfulfilling jobs, your disobedient dogs or WHATEVER else is frustrating or challenging you. And do it without apology! I promise that I won't minimize, maximize or compare with my own life.


Paula Johnson said...

Very good post.

Makes me feel good that I never thought to take my general griping and/or whining down a notch on your account.

My theory being that you HAVE cancer, but cancer does NOT have you.

Emmy said...

Thanks, again, Susan!

Karen said...

Wow, Susan. You are astonishing. Reading your posts is like checking in with the Buddha! Sometimes it's hard to talk at all to someone who's going through a life crisis, because one's own woes seem piddly and not worth discussing, and, on the other hand, one feels guilty talking about good fortune when it's obvious there's not enough to go around. The incredible thing is that you -- who are going through a trial that none of us can truly comprehend and that would scare most of us into total silence -- are still eager to reach out, communicate and participate in life with the same extraordinary style and verve that have always made you stand out. You are an extraordinary soul and role model!! If anyone could make baldness seem like a good thing it isn't Natalie Portman (in V for Vendetta), it's you!!!

Karen said...

Makes me feel good that I never thought to take my general griping and/or whining down a notch on your account.

I didn't think of it either, Paula. I cherish Susan for being such a great listener and empathizer! She knows she'll still hear all about my latest trials and tribulations when we get together. :-)

If anyone could make baldness seem like a good thing it isn't Natalie Portman (in V for Vendetta), it's you!!!

I'll second that, Mrs. Duck. :-)

frankie said...

What a very necessary thing to hear. Thanks Susan.
Good, then I feel free to share with you my appointment with a very caring allergist who reassured me my constant coughing was due to allergies and not TB or pneumonia and I will not end my life Camille-style coughing up blood with my weeping young lover by my bedside. No the doctor told me my allergies are due to the fact that I have "very sensitive nerve endings"... When the doctor said that, the first thing on my mind was: "Does it translate happily in the bedroom?"

suzy keleher said...

ok here goes, Susan...patrick still cannot feel his feet after his spinal surgery one year ago. Yet he works hard, daily. My 19 year old son, Joe, still proves that boys will be boys as he went skateboarding at the beach with his buddies during the night and came home with skinned knees and bruised elbows but no broken bones thank God! Kira, my 17 year old daughter, dyed her hair jetblack...for prom... she looks great! Her dress is an icy royal blue strapless fitted bodice with semi flouncy floor length skirt. her boyfriend will have a matching tie. it is this Fri at the Disneyland hotel. hard to believe i will soon be an empty nester! My big 50 is this July 24! I am so thankful for my work which keeps me very busy and fulfilled: 400 students who are learning to be nurses and appreciate the way i teach them and counsel them. Now, I have plenty of complaints...like my bathroom still is not finished, my cat needs to have expensive surgery, and I am so tired i cannot even stay awake to watch a dvd...and there's more...but I'll save those for another time. Thanks for listening, Susan, as always! 31 years and counting You keep me sharp, Susan! love you much! Suze

denise said...

You are something, Susan. They say, "Attitude is everything"; so you must have EVERYTHING you need :)

talk soon,

Marco said...

Susan - The more you write the more elequent you become - it is amazing! Thank you for your prose and witty observations - this blog thing is a wonder, especially with you at the helm - Love, MSM

Janet Aird said...

You're right. I used to be a minimizer. Then one day someone said to me - If you fall down and hurt your knee, and then you see someone with a broken leg, your knee still hurts!

But I still think the broken leg gets priority.

Piper Robert said...

I agree with Paula 100 percent. I'd also like to take it one more step. Faith says, you HAD cancer. Doesn't that sound great?

Need a laugh for today? Emily sent me this:


Tara said...

Wow Susan! If your GirlTalk friend with menegitis would like to talk to someone who definitely will not minimize her situation, you have my permission to send my private info on to her.

SAMO Calling said...

Here I come - stumbling in.....

I've been missing my posting ops, but I continue to read the posts.

I've had tremendous trouble getting on. I continue to get locked out even though my "my papers are all in order" as they say.

So, Susan, you want us to carry on with our own silly problems? Well - here you go sista.

I have been changing my password, or trying over to log on since I last posted.

Originally I thought it was my office's extreme firewalls. Then it turns out I have had the same problem at home.

Can someone tell me what's happening? Is it normal w/Google?

I know when I sign out, I won't be able to get back on so easily - so just know, I'm checking in as usual and will be eagerly reading all the day's news that's fit to post.

PS: Susan, you my dear are unique for sure. A kiss for your balding head & a very long and strong hug. Check your mail for some Lola pix. You'll like her big bald head.

Karen said...

I think I forgot to enter my username etc. when I wrote my last submission, so I'm doing it again. If my previous entry went through, disregard this one.

Thank you Piper for telling us about the laughing quads! I thought having quads could only be scary! I guess, as with all things (as we're all learning) nothing is only scary -- even the scariest things have many other facets, some of them quite beautiful and moving. The quads are a joy!

Susan -- you are a healer! Cancer arises when cells reproduce willy-nilly, without rhyme or reason, foisting themselves on the body without making the connections necessary for healthy, cooperative effort (i.e., life). But you -- you are so full of life that you can create and inspire healthy, cooperative connections where there were none, you can bring strangers together in a shared experience which creates, in the midst of our willy-nilly days and willie-fears, a beautiful, nourishing haven of rhyme, reason, fellowship and love. The Force is obviously with you!

With love and thanks,
Mrs. Duck

Diane Fisher said...

My dear Susan,

I never read blogs before yours. But now I look forward every day to finding out what is going through your head and your heart—and, of course, how you are doing physically. You are making your own experience a universal one for all of us, simply because we are all human. Thank you for enriching our lives.

Love, Diane

Piper Robert said...

You know what, Ninnie Choo Choo? I feel very proud I can say, "Susan Carrier is MY sister!" I read all your fantastic blogs (it's become a daily routine for me) and enjoy everyones comments. I can stand a little straighter, smile, and say, "Susan Carrier is MY sister!"

Do you remember the time you and I dug a "fox hole" at Grandma's, threw dirt clods and pretended they were hand grenades. James didn't stand a chance. Love ya!

Karen C said...

Susan, I am really enjoying your blog. You are truly an inspiration. Much love to you. I'll call next week.

Susan Carrier said...

I just want to thank everyone for your great comments, sharing and support.

I love you all!