There was a time when I used to judge people who were:
3. in chronic pain or fatigue (I called it "hypochondria" because I'm an expert on these things).
I'm not proud of this. But as I believe life is a place of learning, I'm giving myself props for doing just that, and I'm giving The Big Guy props, too, because He sent me a number of life lessons and situations that would make me uncomfortable enough to figure out I was judgmental and stupid and just plain wrong.
One time I took a plane trip. I was seated between two lovely women. We chatted a bit before the plane took off. I settled in for a nice ride to my destination. Then the stewardess noticed that a very large man was sitting in front of one of the emergency exits. She looked up and down the aisles, then escorted the large man to my row and had him trade places with my seatmate nearest the aisle. When he sat, he spilled into my seat. I had barely enough room to squeeze over for him. The woman in the window seat pulled up the armrest so I could share some of her seat.
The man was so large that he couldn't do up his seatbelt. He couldn't put down the tray when drinks were served. Then he ordered two glasses of red wine. I was wearing a white blouse. I was certain he would spill on me (he didn't), and I would end up at my destination stained and smelling of wine (I didn't). I fumed and pouted. I was mad at the man for being large and at the stewardess for moving my original seatmate and making me uncomfortable. I did not like that large man.
As we got up to exit the plane, the man smiled at me and thanked me for being such a polite neighbor. He offered to help me with my bags. He apologized for taking up so much of the seat. He asked why I was taking a trip and offered information about his own reasons for flying. He talked about his son in Saint George, UT. In short, he was generous and kind and I missed out on an opportunity to get to know him better because he was large.
That will never happen again. I do have a phobia about people who are larger than I am (this would include most men and many women). I feel unsafe with them. I'm afraid. That is no excuse to treat them with disdain or draw incorrect conclusions about them. I've worked on this for about four years now. I'm finding that I like myself so much better when I'm not thinking about another person's size or making judgements about what they "should" weigh. In truth, it no longer matters to me--except when it endangers their health. Then I find myself wanting that health to be better. I have no desire to be without my loved ones. And I wish I could apologize to the person who shared my seat on that flight.
I used to believe that a person was only jobless if he/she was lazy or unemployable because of disability. I had a friend with MS. I would go to her home a few times a week to do small chores, help her exercise, and keep her company. I knew her family was struggling financially. She was on a medication that cost them $2000 monthly after the insurance paid their part. I didn't believe she was unable to work. I suggested many jobs that involved typing, working online, or telephone services. She would smile pleasantly and thank me for my suggestions, but she never tried them.
I will admit that I thought less of her for that. I thought she just didn't want to try--that she didn't want to make the commitment to employment. Perhaps I even judged her lazy. That is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Years later, I stumbled upon a web page about the medication she was taking. I read about the medication and the side-effects--which are much less severe now than they were when my friend was taking it. The truth is that, while it alleviated the physical MS symptoms, it also kept my friend from thinking clearly. She sacrificed her analytical thinking, her short-term memory, and her emotional clarity. In order for the medication to suppress her physical symptoms, it also had to suppress many of her other brain functions. She was also prone to depression (beyond that which she already suffered as she felt the disease remove her physical strength and watched her feet and hands curl and stiffen). She was unable to do the most basic of tasks--including using the bathroom unaided.
I think of my "encouraging" words and wish I could take them all back. They didn't encourage. They amplified the fact that she was unable to do the things I thought were so simple. She was doing the best she could. I didn't understand that. In fact, I probably heaped a great deal of hurt and anxiety on her already painful and anxious life.
I used to believe that people in chronic pain/fatigue were actually just really, really needy people. They lacked attention so they made up symptoms to garner sympathy from those around them. They procured pain killers which assuaged the emotional pain, but couldn't help imagined physical pain. They slept all the time. They were cranky and sad.
I thought they needed to just get up and go for walks. I thought being up early in the morning, enjoying the sunshine, would help them stop wanting to do unhealthy things to get attention. I thought, if they really did have pain, they probably didn't eat right, or they weren't getting enough exercise. I thought they just needed to stop focusing on wanting other people and do things to get healthy emotionally--and physically, if necessary (which I doubted).
I've been known to tell them all the ways I stayed healthy. I've talked about my exercise regimen, foods I don't eat, how movement will solve all their problems. I've been a consummate expert on the things that make them sad or hurt. And in the process, I've minimized a condition that seem enormous to them, belittled their difficulties, and judged them to be illogical and silly.
Then, for three years, I had the opportunity to live with chronic pain. I watched my diet. I exercised regularly. I got adequate rest and kept myself busy. And I wanted to die. Sometimes just driving to the gym made me cry. I didn't give up--but I also didn't get better. And in the midst of all that, I wanted to eat my words to other people who felt similarly. I admitted that I know nothing of what they endure. I wished I had not been so illogical and silly when I believed I knew what was best for them. I wanted to apologize for my callous dismissal of their very real, debilitating condition.
I am reminded of this today. A sweet friend of mine who has for years, been looking for answers as to why he suffers chronic pain, sleepless nights, and recurring depression, announced on Facebook that he was willing to do some retesting to hopefully, get some concrete answers and possible treatment. I don't know if he'll find what he's looking for, but I respect him as he continues to try. It's daunting and frustrating. I love his heart. But a different friend, perhaps one who lives in the space I used to inhabit, posted this:
you tried yoga, swimming, stretching, are you living a fully active
lifestyle? Like exercising properly? I've got scoliosis in my spine
and I've always got back pain so I eat healthy, stay active, swim,
stretch every morning before activities and constant throughout the day.
Sorry, but man up [Samantha's Friend] . If you think about it. I've always told
you that your a strong and wonderful person. First place to start would
be to go to the gym and do some push up and sit ups. Less excuse, more
I sort of want to punch him. My friend has tried yoga, swimming, stretching, etc., for many years. While I appreciate the commentor's enthusiasm and desire to connect through his similar experience, he really has no idea what my friend experiences and it's wrong of him to make assumptions. Not only wrong--but unhelpful. Even more unhelpful is the instruction to "man up," and it sort of nullifies the comments about being a "strong and wonderful person." (I've decided not to lampoon this commentor's inability to use your/you're correctly, or castigate him for his grammar and style errors--it's Facebook, after all.) And while my friend might make an excuse occasionally, I think he's allowed that. He's dealing with something really painful and there are days when he just doesn't have the stamina to fight back anymore.
So I'm rewriting the comment here. My friend probably won't see it, but I'll talk to him later and tell him, myself.
"I know you've tried many things to help alleviate your pain. I know it's terribly difficult for you. I admire you for having the courage to try again, knowing there might not be answers or treatment. Facing that kind of disappointment will add to your stress and pain. You're amazing and I love you for trying. I've had pain of my own--but it belongs to me. Only you know how yours feels and it would be wrong of me to assume I can "fix" you. Remember that I'm here for you, I love you, and it's okay to be sad or frustrated or weak or tired or angry. You've been dealing with this a very long time. Don't give up. I believe one day, you'll find the answers and relief you seek. In the meantime, remember that you're not alone. It won't help the physical pain go away, but it might help alleviate some of the emotional stress. Thank you for letting me know the next step you plan to take. I appreciate you."
I can't undo my past ignorance and stupidity about beautiful, worthwhile people--but I can stop being stupid and ignorant now. And I will.