Friday, December 4, 2015

Communication - to tell or not to tell

I was sitting on the bus the other day, and as we got close to my stop I put on my gloves, ready for the change in temperature when I got off the bus. A woman sitting near me started laughing and asked incredulously “Are you actually cold?!” No, I was not cold. I was overheating, in fact, but unfortunately Raynaud’s can still react to temperature changes in summer, even if you are generally feeling warm. I told the woman I have Raynaud’s disease then, when she looked blank, gave her a brief explanation. She stopped laughing, her face changed to a mix of embarrassment and pity, and I started to wish I’d just said “yes, I’m cold.”

I have a lot of these kinds of interactions with people. There’s always an internal debate for me about whether to explain my health problems (and if so how much to tell) or whether to steer conversations in the other direction. During summer, I spend a lot of my time blindly agreeing with people in discussions about the weather:
“Aren’t you glad it’s sunny?”
No, I’m covered in hives from sun-sensitivity, I’m overheating from having to wear longs sleeves, and I think I just got sunburnt through two layers of clothing and 50+ sunscreen. Yes, it’s lovely, isn’t it?”
because it’s easier than explaining lupus to the many many people using the sun as a conversation opener.

For the most part, I try to be open about my health issues, where it’s appropriate. Sometimes I probably overshare, though there are also times when I actively avoid being honest about what’s going on, even with people I’m close to. Earlier this year, my pain levels began to increase as my joint symptoms became more active, and I also began to experience more allodynia-type pain as a result of not sleeping and the stress that was causing. For quite a while, I didn’t tell anyone about this, even my friends from pain clinic. Initially this was because I thought the pain might go away on its own, but when that didn’t happen, I didn’t want to tell anyone because then I would have to acknowledge that it was really happening. I was also worried that if people found out they would react by trying to hug me, which is the last thing you want when you’re in a lot of pain! As is turns out, the first person I told did in fact go to hug me straight away, but that ended up being a good thing as I found out that this time around physical contact isn’t anywhere near as painful as I’d remembered it being. Discovering this reduced some of my distress around the situation, so while I am still experiencing heightened pain on and off, it’s not making me feel as lonely or isolated as it did at the start. In this instance keeping the issue to myself had not been sparing me any emotional or physical pain, but instead increasing it.

I was talking to a friend about some of this the other day, and they brought up the idea that when you have big health stuff happening, it’s sometimes nice to have that one person in your life who doesn’t know what’s going on because then you can just feel normal with them. A few months ago when I had a tough situation going on, a friend from oversea made a joke that, given the circumstances (which he of course didn’t know about) was amazingly inappropriate. That actually made it just that much funnier to me, and the resulting hysterical laughter was exactly what I needed. When people don’t know what’s going on, they won’t hold you by the edges, treat you as fragile, or push you to deal with problems when you’re not yet ready to. Instead they will just carry on as if nothing has happened because as far as they know nothing has. This can make conversations with them feel safe and easy, however on the flip side of that, after a while not telling people can create a sense of disconnection in your interactions, as it’s like trying to talk to them through an elephant enclosure. They may treat you as if you’re normal, but if you don’t actually feel like you are that “normal” person anymore, the relationships can start to feel fake as if you are playing pretend rather than being authentic with them. One approach I have found that seems to strike a balance between the two, is to let people know that something is going on but also let them know that I’d rather keep the conversation light. For example saying something along the lines of “Yes, things are really tough at the moment, but I’ll figure it out” feels honest, but also stays in that easy comfortable zone. If I know the person well, I’ll even just answer “how are you?” with “meh” and then change the subject, as this removes the need to lie and say everything is fine, but also still avoids getting bogged down in.

After writing all this down, I don’t think I’ve come to any conclusions about which is the best course of action – to tell or not to tell – other than to say that finding the balance of how much to share and when is really difficult, whether it’s with strangers or with friends. Over time I’ve learned to recognise when the level of openness in a relationship doesn’t feel right anymore and to make an effort to try change that, either by sharing less or finding ways to be more honest (or at least not to lie and say everything is fine.)

Thanks for reading,
Little Miss Autoimmune

P.S. Believe it or not, when I sat down and started writing this was supposed to be an update about what happened at the sleep-specialist appointment, but I got a bit side tracked. I’ll post an update about that soon… probably…

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