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"If it's hard for everyone, I don't deserve help"
The kind of commiseration that leaves you drowning
This Thursday, I’ll share highlights from your reflections on the pressure to both do domestic work, and then, on top of that, to make the work invisible. This week, our topic is the kind of “support” that can leave you feeling like you don’t deserve help.
I like to read the Diagnosis column in the New York Times Magazine—a brief, two-page medical mystery adapted from a real person’s story. The author, Dr. Lisa Sanders, consulted for the tv show House, but the stories are stripped of the doctors’ personal drama and are centered more on the patient.
To make a diagnosis, the doctors have to be attentive to the patient, not just their lab results—nothing winds up in the column when the answer is deduced simply. This week’s column is suspenseful: in only a few hours, a young man who walks into an ER with chest pain after inhaling a breath mint is in such a poor state that it’s unclear if he’ll survive transfer to a more specialized hospital. (He makes it!)
But the part that stood out was his reflection after his diagnosis and recovery:
Once the patient understood what he had and started to feel the benefit of the treatment, he realized he’d been sick long before that mint went down wrong. He will have to take these hormones for the rest of his life, but he feels better than he has for years. No one can be certain exactly when his glands were destroyed; it was probably long ago. “I’m not a guy who goes to the doctor,” he admitted. He thought he was just getting old: “You know what they say — after 30, it’s all downhill.” But not anymore. Not for him, anyway.
Whenever I find out a friend is pregnant, I try to find a moment before her third trimester to have the postpartum depression talk. It goes something like this:
Having a newborn is hard, and you may feel pretty exhausted. And people are going to say things like, “You must be having a rough time! Not sleeping at all, right?” that will make it seem like suffering is normal and there’s no alternative.
And it is going to be hard, but I want you to know that not all kinds of hard are normal or inevitable. If you feel like you don’t deserve to sleep, if you’re afraid you’ll hurt your baby, if it feels like things will never get better or you have nothing to look forward to… that’s not the kind of hard people are telling you to expect.
You don’t have to just endure it, you’re not going to be a bad mom for wanting to feel better, it’s not the price you pay to get to have a baby. It might be depression, and a doctor can help you out… as long as someone knows you need help.
There’s a dangerous undertow when you’re surrounded by people commiserating about how hard you must have it. It can quash your sense that, no, this is different, something is really wrong and I need and deserve help.
You don’t have to have postpartum depression or anxiety to be misled by this well-meaning ruefulness. One friend of mine talked casually about how hard it was to get her baby to sleep, and I was light and sympathetic, until I heard the details of how hard she had it.
Her baby was only willing to sleep while held, never in a bassinet, so she and her husband had to take turns sitting awake and holding their little girl. It wasn’t until she said something about being impressed about how I got through that phase that I understood and said, “I never had that phase. That’s not a problem everyone has to deal with. What you have is way way harder that what I dealt with, and it’s worth seeing if someone can help get your baby closer to normal hard.”
I’ve had this kind of conversation with a friend who was working hard on being patient and coping with his stressful job. It was worse, because so many people in his office had a terrible time, and it was leaching everyone’s hope that something better was possible. You had to be working somewhere else to be able to say:
Lots of people don’t start the work day crying in their car.
When people say that their boss is a pain, they don’t mean that they are harangued for hours in a taped meeting… that other members of the team have to watch.
I’ve never held a job, at a variety of companies, where it was unremarkable for someone to throw up from stress every day.
He left, thanks be to God, but it took much longer than it could have, because he kept hearing that it was normal for your job to make you miserable, and he didn’t realize what a different level of misery most of the rest of us were talking about.
The man in the Diagnosis column was so used to hearing that getting older meant that your body fell apart that he accepted every pain and constraint as normal, unescapable, and unworthy of complaint. After all, everyone was going through the same thing.
He was wrong. My friend with the terrible job was wrong. My friend with the non-sleeping baby was wrong. But they all took their cues from the rest of us.