A SCARY SYMPATHY
Olly Mann discovers that people find it surprisingly hard to say, “Get well soon”
About to have an operation? Be warned. People won’t shy away from sharing medical misadventures.
MY MUM’S ABOUT TO have spinal surgery. There’s an illusion of choice about it: one consultant suggested she should have it immediately, while another said she had “acres of time” to make up her mind. (When pushed, he said she shouldn’t leave it untreated for more than six months.)
The operation – a lumbar decompression – is relatively straightforward, in spinal surgery terms, but does carry a risk of paralysis, as does any intervention around those nerves. If she opted not to have the procedure, though, there would be a chance of eventually becoming confined to a wheelchair anyway. So, surgery it is.
Friends and family have reacted to this news predictably, offering up chicken soup and platitudes, but also surprisingly, by talking in such negative terms that Mum has come to label the encounters “psychological theft”. This conversational crime is motivated by compassion, but can have devastating consequences, and is usually committed by accident. It occurs when – by thoughtlessly reflecting their own negative experiences – other people hijack your anxiety and put themselves in it, rather than provide relief from it.
I’LL GIVE YOU AN EXAMPLE. Last week Mum went to the post office and bumped into Geoff (not his real name), who works for the local travel agent. “How are you?” he asked.
“Not great,” she replied. “I’ve been having some trouble with my back and I’m going to need surgery.”
“Oh, GOD!” he responded. “The back is the most dangerous place to operate. My mum had that and she was in terrible pain. Make sure you get all your affairs in order before you go under the knife – it takes months to get over it!”
Now, Geoff ’s intention had been benign. He’d relayed his own mother’s story to show sympathy, ie, demonstrating his knowledge that chronic back pain is nasty. He’d also wanted to show empathy – to articulate that Mum is hardly the only person to have suffered with this condition, and she needn’t feel alone. As he walked away, Geoff was probably thinking: I’ve just related on a personal level to this panic-stricken woman. I’ve told her a story about someone I know who experienced similar obstacles and came through alive. Well done, Geoff, you’re quite the man! You’re getting a bubble bath tonight! Needless to say, this was not Mum’s takeaway from Geoff. She heard: pain, danger, knife, months.
Astonishingly, another acquaintance reacted to Mum’s predicament by actually reeling off statistics for unsuccessful back surgery. I can’t begin to fathom how this could be considered a helpful contribution, frankly – but, if I’m being charitable, perhaps it was his way of saying, “You’re right to be concerned, yes;
it’s a serious operation.” Inevitably, all Mum focused on was a frightening prognosis which, as it turns out, wasn’t even accurate for her specific condition (yes, I Googled it later).
ONCE YOU START LISTENING OUT FOR IT, it’s staggering how regularly people respond to another person’s ill health by talking extensively about themselves, or someone else they once knew; someone with a completely different condition, who more often than not experienced a negative outcome.
In the past few weeks, Mum’s mates and colleagues have regaled her with stories about their Aunty Trisha, who required rapid follow- up surgery; their neighbour, who caught a superbug and never walked again; their grandmother, who had something similar – well not that similar at all really, a heart attack, but still, it’s all surgery, isn’t it? And yes, OK, she was 96, and yes, she’d chain-smoked for 50 years, but still, here’s the point, her recovery period was so strenuous … and on it goes. Psychological theft.
It’s really not that difficult to think of alternative things they could have said that would be equally true, but more beneficial to hear. “The specialists in our hospitals are among the best in the world. It’s amazing what they can do these days!” – that’s a good one. “You’re going to feel much better afterwards. It’ll be a new lease of life for you!” – that’s another. “Is there anything I can do to help?” – that’s always a welcome offer. Positive suggestions, rather than compounding the negative thoughts inevitably circling around inside the head of someone who’s already anxious about surgery, are all that’s required.
I’M NOT SUGGESTING PATIENTS should be sheltered from the reality of the risks they’re taking. But if the decision to have surgery has already been taken, or can’t really be avoided, what’s the purpose of highlighting the drawbacks? To put it another way – when our pipes burst, we want our friends to recommend a good plumber, rather than tell us about the torrential flood they saw on the TV news. When we’re at the GP, we prefer nurses who say, “You may feel a pricking sensation”, to those who say, “This is going to hurt”.
And when we’re facing a scary and precarious medical treatment, the results of which are entirely out of our own control, surely it’s just common sense to say, “Get well soon, and how can I help?”
If surgery can’t be avoided, what’s the purpose of highlighting the drawbacks?