"I'm totally fine, guys!" Or, On Being Chronically Ill But Also a People Pleaser.
I can be a real people pleaser, especially to people I don’t know very well.
Maybe it’s the way I was raised (as a child, my dad once threw up in his teacher’s car and then tried to hide it, as not to make any waves). Maybe it’s the overly hospitable Midwesterner in me. Maybe it’s that thing that seems sadly ingrained in a lot of women where we just never want to be *gasp!* a bother.
Whatever it is, I have a deep-seated need to never make anyone uncomfortable. I will go to great lengths to keep this up–– I didn’t hear what you said? I’ll nod and smile and pretend I did! You want to buy me a drink but I think you’re a creep? I’ll probably let you and then just hope you go away! You want me to buy the weird teflon nail polish you’re currently selling through your aunt’s friend? Put me down for 16 bottles.
In life, this just makes things occasionally awkward and weird for me. But in terms of my illness, it can actually cause some problems.
As it turns out, when a doctor or other medical professional asks how you’re doing, you’re supposed to actually tell them. Wacky, I know. The standard, “Oh I’m great, how are you doing?” is slightly less convincing from an emergency room stretcher. And being coy about your symptoms can really hurt you. If your doctors don’t know what’s wrong, or how much pain you’re actually in, it’s hard for them to treat you.
A standby response for me at gastroenterologist appointments for years was “mostly I feel normal.” Each time, their response was the same: my definition of normal is not the same as a healthy person’s definition of normal, and I could be doing better. But how do you redefine normal? Normal for me has been a steady homeostasis of stomach aches and discomfort. So how do I put myself in the shoes of a healthy person, and then describe what I feel from there? What’s it like to not be in at least middling amounts of pain every day?
Add on to those questions that I have been blessed with some pretty crippling social anxiety–– I’m constantly worried about what other people are thinking of me. If I’m having a bad pain day, and I tell you as much, is that going to be seen as dramatic or attention seeking? Everyone worries about what others think to some extent–– but I’m actively trying to take doctors out of that equation. If there’s one person with whom you should be being totally honest about your symptoms, it’s them. Your doctor is not someone you are trying to impress at a party, they’re there to gather information and help you feel better. (Unless, like me, one day you get a really attractive young GI fellow asking about your bowel habits. In that case, you should giggle a lot and stop forming words like I did.)
The moral of the story is, people pleasing isn’t all bad. Except when it puts your health in jeopardy. Or when it lands you at a really lame acquaintance’s baby shower because you don’t know how to say no.