Friday, November 8, 2013

Be That Kind of Friend

Earlier this year, I published a book in which, without giving too much away, one of the significant characters is very ill. The ailment is one that, at that time, could not be adequately treated, let alone cured, a condition that inevitably resulted in a shortened lifespan. Despite this heavy and very real struggle, the tale is a hopeful one, a celebration of love that endures in the face of trials and heartache and uncertainty, love that brings joy in the midst of sorrows.

I wrote the book a few years ago, when I was healthy and fully anticipating being so for decades to come. As you can imagine, the struggles and difficulties these characters faced struck me with added force as I went through edits and revisions in the midst of my own recently-arrived chronic illness. So much of this story reflects what is now my reality.

The response was generally quite good, but an email I received shortly after this book was published caught me by surprise. “No one,” the email informed me, “wants to read about someone who is sick.”

Authors understand and accept that everyone’s taste in books is different, that each individual reader comes to a story yearning for something specific, and it isn’t possible that any one tale will fulfill that expectation in every person who reads it. Some people will like what we write. Some won’t. That’s okay. We are okay with that.

But I have found myself unable to entirely shake that one sentence, those ten words. They hover in my mind, pricking at the tender places in my soul. It took a while for me to realize that the staying power of that declaration had absolutely nothing to do with criticism of a book I had written. Absolutely nothing. I wasn’t even bothered by the fact that this reader didn’t care for this particular book. It has happened before and will happen again. Rather, the ache I felt came from being that person “who is sick” and has felt the impact of that sentiment in my own life.

When an illness is new, there is an outpouring of concern and condolences and empathy. It is a gift, a rare bit of sunshine in a suddenly cloudy life. It is hope in a very palpable form. But something changes as time passes. Some amongst that person’s circle of acquaintances—thankfully not all, in my experience not even most—grow impatient with the whole thing.

“Well, if you’re not feeling better, you must be doing something wrong.”

“I know, I know. You ‘don’t feel good.’ You never do.” 

“This disease isn’t new anymore, so you really ought to be okay with it by now. Maybe you need to work on your attitude.”

“I have done a lot of things for you lately, why can’t you just do this one thing?”

Sometimes the response is more subtle. A roll of the eyes. A quick change of subject if the topic of health happens to come up. People who simply won’t talk to you anymore. Often it’s an almost imperceptible aura of annoyance. After a while, what is really being said becomes clear. “I don't want to hear about or deal with or be bothered with someone who is sick.”

When you are the person who is sick, it breaks your heart. You don’t want to be a downer. Indeed, you honestly wish none of this were going on, that it would magically all go away or would suddenly be really easy to deal with. You try hard to keep to yourself just how much you’re struggling. You purposely stick to other topics because, as tired as some people get of hearing about your illness, you are far more tired of being ill.

You learn to not talk about it. You learn to pretend everything is fine. You learn to close off your heart when someone makes it clear that the empathy ship has sailed though you are still on Illness Island looking out over a vast ocean you know you’ll never cross. There are moments when you feel utterly alone.

Then someone comes along and puts an arm around your shoulders, or listens as you pour your broken heart out, or simply chooses to stick around even when you’re struggling or frustrated or not getting any better. The dismissals and unkindness still sting, they still wound an already fragile soul, but you learn to find strength in those who do not desert you. You cling to those moments of support and understanding. You remember that, while there are certainly people who don’t want to be bothered with someone who is sick, there are many others who can see the person and not just the illness.

So if there is someone in your life who is struggling, whatever their struggle, be that kind of friend who sees them through and loves them even when things look bleak. They need it likely more than you know.

22 comments:

Kari Pike said...

So beautifully said, Sarah. Thank you for sharing these tender thoughts. I'm sorry you are sick, that you hurt, and that someone has been unkind to you. I think it's particularly tough when you are sick and you don't look sick. You set such a beautiful example of patience and finding joy in the moment. you are much loved my beautiful and talented friend. tender hugs~

Lady Jai said...

I saw this shared from a fellow writer friend on facebook. I wanted to let you know that this hit home so deeply. Although I am not the chronic pain/illness sufferer, my husband is. It's been about 15 years since his accident, he's out of work and in constant pain. He's a disabled vet but when he tells people that, they look him up and down and say, "You don't look disabled." And that cuts the soul so deep. Just because you can't see it, doesn't mean it isn't there. No one knows what other people suffer. They'd rather turn a blind eye. We're now secluded because he pretty much cannot leave the house without fear of "am i going to get kicked in the head". He's lost his ability to make friends because of it and we've grown apart from those friends we once had, either physically due to moving, or emotionally because we don't want to be a burden and/or keep telling them no we can't make it tonight. I know his chronic pain/illness is not mine, but it affects me too because I love him. There are many days I fail to cope but try my darnedest to be strong. Sometimes I think I fail but I am always there for him. So, I totally understand and wish I could give you a hug. The hardest thing we can do is find the positives, no matter how small. It's easy to be negative. But that's not the life I want to live. <3
Jamie Dement (LadyJai)

Rebecca H. Jamison said...

I can't believe people would say those things! What you've said reminds me so much of my family's struggle to raise my sister. She was born with Down Syndrome, and we were always hopeful that she could do as well as other kids with Downs. What we didn't know was that she also had autism. Many times we felt like failures because we couldn't even get her to the Special Olympics level. People can be judgmental in situations like that. I'm glad there are people who are still supporting you. I hope I can be like them.

Ashley Allen said...

One of the things I like most about your books is that each of your characters has flaws, physical or otherwise (tempers, pride, etc.) I love reading about characters that have some relate-able feature. None of us are perfect. I struggle with infertility/sterility in an emotional way, I guess I'm emotionally sick. Reading a book about a character that has an unseen illness that requires the faith of others to support, was immeasurably encouraging to me. Keep up your hard work. I follow you on twitter and this blog and am constantly amazed at your tenacity and "stick-to-it-ive-ness," as my dad called it. You are an inspiration as well as your characters. Thank you for sharing this need for compassion. I hope you continue to create characters that are as endearing as the ones you have already created and pray for you and your family as you daily adjust to the curveball life threw at you. You Rock!

worldsbestmomever said...

Hi, thanks for putting your thoughts into words we can read. One time a well meaning lady from church told me she and her husband focus on good eating to stay well and that we should try it. What? If eating better would cure my hubbies MS and my broken leg I was all for it and who said we don't eat well? How judgmental did that come off. And then my son's teacher told me she was going to fix he his problem before the end of the school year. I tod her if she could fix autism she could be a billionaire. She didn't laugh and neither did I. I see her every Sunday we make it to church. Awkward.
I struggle to juggle working full time and giving my high needs family members what they need while not ignoring the family members who aren't so high in need. Housework comes last and church sometimes does too. That's where we are in life. I do what I can. No my husband is not better. Yep he looks good to you because you didn't see him in bed all week or hear him crash into the wall on his way to the bathroom this morning. They don't understand he puts on his best face for them and he tries for me but mostly I don't get to see it.
Last week someone told me I am happy all the time and can handle anything. lol. Only because I am putting my best face on as well.
I can't wait to read your books keep on keeping on.

Jennie said...

Sarah, you are a gifted writer with a talent for helping others see inside the hearts of your characters and by extension into the hearts of people they meet. Since I have so recently become numbered among those with a chronic illness, I haven't experienced some of the negative reactions you have, but I've noticed far fewer people reaching out to me than after my first surgery. However I expect it since I've seen it happen to my son-in-law who was wounded in Iraq.

Donna Nolan said...

Sarah, this is so well written and expresses exactly what I feel. I was diagnosed with a chronic illness at 18. I have heard many of those same comments. I have learned to drag myself out of bed every day, put a smile on my face and make everybody else feel cared for to the best of my ability. I take meals to those who are "sick," watch their children, provide rides, etc. all while wishing somebody would bring a meal to me. But you can't request a meal every day for 18 years. :) Many days the real struggle is having a body that does not want to keep up with my mind and my desires. Really this was beautiful. I hope and pray that you will be comforted and surrounded by people who will always let you be true.

Kira said...

My sister altered this phrase from Wreck-It Ralph: "I feel bad, and that's good. I may never feel good, and that's not bad. There is no one I'd rather be than me." I have been repeating it myself for weeks now. It doesn't make it go away, but it gives me some perspective. I don't mind reading about someone who is ill...

Writing is most valuable to me when the fictional characters deal with realistic difficulties by growing, changing, hoping. This triumph over the difficulties of life is what makes your writing something I will reread. (And there is very little I reread.)

AnnaMae Tippetts said...

It is a strange thing that we think everything can be controlled by will power. I am grateful for this reminder Sarah. Keep up the good work of awareness, and keep those books coming. So proud to know you. Love you so much.

Jeanette said...

Miranda is one of my favorite characters. I relate to her and love her because of her "flaws." Thank you for sharing your struggles with us and for the reminder to be "that" friend.

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"You learn to close off your heart when someone makes it clear that the empathy ship has sailed though you are still on Illness Island looking out over a vast ocean you know you’ll never cross."

Powerful passage. Making me think. I appreciate it.

Debbie said...

Sarah,
I just wanted you to know that you are not alone. I have Ulcerative Colitis, and while I look fine on the outside, people don't understand the pain on the inside that I try to keep hidden, so it doesn't have to be the downer topic of the day; or how many times I have to try and pretend that I am okay, so that I can get things done. I did have friends that stopped talking to me because I got sick, but they must not have been real friends to begin with, if MY illness was THEIR inconvenience. I do love your books. I read to escape reality. Whether it is my illness, or my husband's brain tumor 8 years ago, or economic problems. I love escaping into the world that you create. I hope that you are able to enjoy good days and have someone bringing you sunshine on the harder days. You are loved! Sincerely,
Debbie Lewis

Sandi said...

This made me cry because this is my reality too. Everything you said was spot on and it is so hard. Thank you for giving me just a little bit of belonging, that there are others who are hurting inside just as much as I am. I'm sorry you have to deal with something so difficult.

Angela said...

I just finished reading the book you referred to and loved it. I appreciate these clean fun books that you write. Thank you!

Leslie said...

You have expressed so well what it is like to have constant pain and trying to deal with it, as well as the insensitivity of others. Someone very close to me once said, "I wish I had fibromyalgia so I would have an excuse not to do anything". Though I have forgiven him, that remark still cuts me to the quick. I also have arthritis and most days it is a huge effort just to make it out of bed and take care of the essentials. Thank you for your honesty and your beautiful way of saying things that ring true to the heart. I love your books - they are not only an escape but they make me laugh, cry, and relate to the struggles and feelings of your characters. I always finish your books with a sigh of satisfaction and sadness that it is done. I wish you well in your journey with RA. I do hope you will keep writing even while dealing with so much. Thank you for sharing your heart - it is wonderful to feel that someone else out there gets it.

Carla Kelly author said...

Like you, I'm always amazed what readers will say to writers. It's as though we're not supposed to have any feelings. But we do; in fact, I contend that we feel more than most, and that's one of the reasons we write.

Sarah, you're in my heart and mind.

Donna K. Weaver said...

Big hugs, Sarah. So much truth and so well said. As always, you're in my prayers.

Connie Sokol said...

Sweet Sarah, I had no idea. My husband has had a chronic illness since we met (got it on his mission) and it's been a hard fought journey in so many ways, on so many levels. My heart and prayers are with you. If anyone can handle this with grace, humor, and tenacity, it's you (and chocolate helps on certain days, just for the endorphins...) We are happy to help in any way we can and will be putting our creative ideas to the test to see if we can add our two bits to ease your pain, emotional and physical. Know that the Lord loves you and saves his most refining fires for those of the purest gold (even drops of gold??) Luvs, Connie

Debbie Cranberryfries said...

Such a great post! My in-laws deal a lot with mental health issues and I felt myself nodding the entire time reading this as I feel like it could apply to that also.

Tiffany Larson said...

I realize this is late but I loved A Glimmer of Hope it was my favorite of all your books. I hope you can take comfort from the fact that you bring people so much joy and pleasure from your writing. I am sorry for the physical and emotional burdens you have had to bear.

Crystal said...

Sarah, you are not alone in facing that hurt, heartache, uncertainty, fear... unknown. Know that you have touched and the blessed the lives of me and my daughters through your writing. I can understand somewhat of your experience having lived it myself. God bless you! Much love your way! It helps to know that God has a plan and He perfectly understands. Sometimes, we just have to wait for His majesty to unfold.
Many blessings and love sent your way!

ernesto-consultoria said...


So nice blog, Thanks for sharing these tender feelings.
Hugs!!!!!

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