Friday, November 6, 2009

Keeping sickness and illness from one's family

I met my mother yesterday for a fika before my knitting group met up. She told me about seeing one of her friends/former colleagues, who were diagnosed with chronic cancer a couple of years ago. (To my understanding it means that her cancer is always present, but that it sometimes goes from taking a nap to being wide awake.) She's in treatment at the moment as her cancer decided to move into her liver and kick around in there.

At her latest doctor's appointment she was given good news about the treatment. The tumour had shrunk by one third. Hearing this my mother had asked how her friend's husband had reacted to the good news. She was told that the husband only heared it after the appointment was over "as he was waiting outside". This surprised my mother and she asked why he wasn't in there with her seeing the doctor. The response she got was "well, he prefers not seeing the doctors with me as he's not good with handling bad news and is really struggling with me being sick again".

They've been married for 30 years. And he's not in there to see the doctors. 'Cause "he's struggling".

This got me and my mother wondering how my mother's friend behaves when she's given bad news from her doctors. Is she sparing him the details? Does she deal with the pain, the anxiety and the worrying on her own?

I had a colleague who lost her father a couple of years ago. He had found out that he had some kind of kidney problem but he chose not to tell a soul. He got sicker and sicker but pretended everything was fine. And then he ended up in hospital and died two days later. Leaving his whole family in shock as they didn't have much or any time at all to prepare for what would come.

A woman I met while studying in Canada kept her disease a secret from her family while she was fighting it. Her family was on a different continent, several time zones away. She didn't want to worry them and she didn't want them to persuade her to come home. She wasn't done with Canada. And she knew she'd probably get better treatment there as well. But without her family close by.

I know of several people who've kept depressions from their families and friends. Who've struggled on their own. Sometimes letting it go so far that they end up in hospital before saying something.

What makes people do this? Why do they think they're sparing others when they keep sickness and illness to themselves? When they decide to go in battle on their own? Or when they decide to give up without support?

Do family, relatives and friends deserve to know when one gets sick? Do they have a right?

I don't know.

But I know I'd get mad as hell if any of my family members kept a serious disease or condition from me and I found out. I might thank them for wanting to keep me from woryring but then I'd smack them. 'Cause I'd be angry. And probably feel a bit offended. I wouldn't be comfortable knowing that I was considered "too weak" to be counted on as support.

'Cause that would be my role. I'd be the support. And I'd feel robbed if I wasn't given the chance.

And wouldn't most? Or is that just me being naïve and blue-eyed?

When I struggled with my depression some years ago (almost 7 years now; time flies) friends found out before my parents got the whole picture. But I did tell my parents about it. Several weeks before I hit bottom and had to call them to come and get me from my office floor. And knowing that I had already told them about my tears, my doubts, my anxiety and my fears, made it so much easier calling them for help. And they did help. I got picked up from work and driven straight to the psychiatric emergency. I moved back into my old room and lived with my parents and sister for two months. And during those months, they all took turns babysitting me. I wasn't left alone more than an hour at a time, and never in the evenings or at night. Not because we feared I might do something terrible (I wasn't ever suicidal) but becuase I was too scared to be on my own as I couldn't handle my anxieties and my tears when I was on my own. I was terrified of ending up hyperventilating on the floor again.

These months were tough on all of us. It wrecked my mother to see me sit hollow-eyed or teary. But mostly, it was hard for her that I doubted the person I was. That I didn't particularly like the person she had been a part of creating and loved. I don't think I've ever seen my father with such a deep wrinkle in his forehead. And my sister, taking on such a responsibility while still a teen... But... There's also something very real about crying in someone's arms. It creates bonds. Strong ones.

If I hadn't let my family help me through that year, I don't know if I'd feel as close to them as I do now. I don't know if I'd trust them as I do now. I sure hope I would, but I don't know.

I'm sure glad I let them be my support. And I know they appreciate it as well.

But did they have a right to know? Was I obliged to let them in? You tell me!


Anya said...

When my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer 11 years ago, she decided she wasn't going to tell my grandmother. My grandmother is very pessimistic. She would have gone crazy and started acting as if my mother was dying, when in fact, her chances of survival were pretty good - and she's still alive today. If my grandmother had known, she would have made my mom's life miserable. My mom's sister passed away from cancer and we all remember how my grandmother reacted, so it was best for my mom's health that she didn't know. She attributed all of the side effects of treatment (nauseau, hair loss, etc.) to anxiety and my grandmother believed every word. Sometimes, when you have family members like my grandmother, what they don't know can't hurt YOU.

Geek Knitter said...

It's so hard to know what motivates people. Your mother's friend may be quite content to tell her husband about her doctor visits.

This is a long way to say that I don't think people have an obligation to tell about things like that. I think a person would have to make that decision on a person by person sort of basis. It would be wrong if your family didn't tell you, or if my family didn't tell me... but I think that Anya makes a very good point.

There are people who are worse than no help, they just drag the patient down and create drama.

essjay said...

My father fell ill a few years back and was in the hospital for 3 days. My mom didn't call me until that 3rd day. I was very upset about that. She claimed there was no need for me to know because there was nothing I could do and they wanted to be able to tell me what the problem was and they didn't know that until the 3rd day. I understand where she was coming from - I was 16 hours away and she also didn't tell my sister until that day also. It is hard not to know but I respect their decision not to tell me.

I've also found that sharing things can actually harm in the long run - similar to what Anya said. I said one statement to my mother a year ago that I regret every saying because it has negatively affected their view of me. I wish I could take it back but I've learned to be more careful.

It truly is a personal decision.

clarabelle said...

I think it's wonderful (and right!) that your parents and family felt it was their responsibility to make sure that you were OK when you were feeling your worst. But not all families work/feel that way. I always try to my utmost best to be there for my own adult children, and I hope that I've achieved that. This sentiment is underpinned by the knowledge that my dad died when I was 9, and my mum moved on to a new family. I've always felt totally alone.