I have few memories of illness in my family as I was growing up. My parents barely acknowledged minor ailments. They spoke of sickness as something that, with proper living, could be avoided. They often deemed the illness of others psychosomatic, not without sympathy, but with an underlying message of some hidden weakness that should be overcome.
In my husband Len’s final year, I became intimately involved with persistent pain. He was stoic, but when he left the house for an adventure with a friend, I would assist in placing the Parkinson’s meds he needed to take at set times in a small pocket container. I noticed when the number of tablets he added for pain relief increased. It made me uneasy.
During our regular visits to physicians, the initial question was often, “On a scale of one to ten, how’s the pain?” Len might answer, “Nine.” Compression fractures in his spine were the apparent cause, but I was dismayed and embarrassed by his admission.
I’ve read that many people are ashamed to talk about pain, whether it be a passing headache or something more chronic. But those who make the effort to describe their pain in some detail, a study found, were better able to cope with the pain thereafter.
I suspect this relates to emotional pain as well.
Some time ago, I had a scare, arising from a routine physical. My doctor ordered an ultrasound, then an MRI. Then, of course, I spent a week waiting for results.
I made the decision to share this information with no one, rationalizing that any disclosure would be premature. But my inner turmoil belied this determination, and when a close colleague asked why I seemed so distracted, my story poured forth. The next day I told other intimate friends. That evening I emailed my kids, giving them the details.
The reduction in stress was palpable.
Soon the reassuring news came that all was well.
Why the initial reluctance to tell anyone? Was I shamed by an old parental message that illness was in some way a punishment for wrongdoing? What better defense mechanism could I have than to hide this presumably moral flaw of not being the person Mother wanted me to be?
Well, there is bound to be a next time. I hope my recent experience will finally silence my childhood script that illness is somehow shameful and to be denied. Unexpressed fears, and pain, can loom larger than life. Giving voice to them not only opens the way to receive loving support but lightens the step and makes it easier to breathe.