How Angelina Jolie (I know, but there you go) reminds us about the importance of sharing our struggles with the ones we love.
Hayley DeRoche is a Community Technology Librarian in Roanoke, but she hails from and misses RVA. She is a master of karate and friendship for everyone. Starting in June she’ll join us regularly to share her thoughts on current events and other things of that nature. Keep an eye out for her!
Recently, Angelina Jolie wrote an op-ed piece–simply titled My Medical Choice–about how she underwent a double-mastectomy. It was brave, empowering, and detailed. In it, she wrote, “I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer…On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.”
I’m not a good person to talk about cancer. What I can speak to, though, is the power of sharing one’s medical decisions and struggles with one’s community and partner/family and shouldering the burdens together–both in an effort to educate others and in an effort to get support. I realize this is not precisely the point of Jolie’s article, as hers was specifically about helping other women realize options that are out there and to educate, but hear me out about the sharing openly for support stuff too.
Sharing your struggles in order to help others
I’m not gonna lie. Sometimes sharing your medical life with others can be super uncomfortable. Some medical things are easier to talk to others about than others. As I said, I can’t talk about cancer, but I can sure tell you that talking to people about my infertility problems can get kind of squicky. Not for me, mind you; I have no trouble telling people the details of what it feels like to be a turkey basted in an office, but apparently this makes some other people uncomfortable.
Cheek aside, there really are some medical things that are hard to share with people, and I wonder sometimes at the number of people going through this stuff that feel they can’t share with anybody because it would make them feel uncomfortable–whether it’s stuff about breasts or fertility or the whole scope of possible ailments and conditions and body parts. So we all go through these things largely alone, not having anyone in our lives to tell us, “Oh, I went through that procedure, it wasn’t that bad, you’ll be OK. I know it sucks though.” I figure sharing my issues is sort of like medical crowdsourcing; it means I have to be open with my life, but I also get to access the wealth of knowledge that lies in my bounty of friends. In turn, they know I’m a source for the dirt on this stuff, too, and that they aren’t the only ones.
In short, by being open with others about our medical struggles, we can work to remove certain stigmas and taboos and also work to educate others, while tapping into the resources of our friends for information.
Sharing your struggles in order to get support
When my husband and I began dealing with this so-far unexplained infertility journey (which sounds nicer than calling it “purgatory”), it came as a long, drawn-out shock. Having the support of just each other through the ups and downs of this process would have been hard, even though I like to think we’re pretty good at supporting each other. We probably would have cracked long before now if our parents didn’t know, if some of our friends didn’t know, if our siblings didn’t know. If you have kids, it might mean simply letting them know that mom or dad is having a hard time with something and they need some extra love, or any number of age-appropriate talks so that the family can be a cohesive support group.
Not only does our community know we’re going through some rough stuff, I hope they also see us as a couple that they can turn to if they find themselves in any rough-seas boat. By opening up about medical struggles and decisions, people can find that their friendships and partnerships deepen. I’m sure for some of you readers, this is a no-brainer; but for us socially awkward people, it’s a good thing to remember. You may be surprised at what the conversations could lead to, and people may understand a lot more than you think they will. They may even have advice you never thought they’d be in a position to give, precisely because people don’t always talk about Hard Stuff. Angelina Jolie might not seem like a person who’d know all about something as random as BRCA1 genetic testing, but there you go. When we’re open with people, we learn, and we can all lean on each other.
Of course, with sensitive topics like one’s medical choices, if you tell people, eventually you’re going to have someone who tells you you’re wrong for making the choices you’ve made. In our case, the “Why don’t you just adopt?” question came from a number of people (it’s one thing to ask, it’s another thing to shake fingers). For others, it may be the person who tells you to stop going to your doctor and start seeing an herbalist instead, or someone who insists yoga will cure you of X, Y, and Z. For every 10 people you find who are supportive and there to listen when you need it, there will be one who brazenly decides they know better than you do. The important thing is to surround yourselves with people who can support you the way you need to be supported. Having a core of people who Get It helps tremendously, but even having people who simply know that you’re having a rough time can help too.
As Jolie concluded her essay, “Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.” While we may not be able to control all medical challenges, we can often control how we deal with them in our lives beyond the doctor’s office–we can become hermits, or we can brave some of our social circles and share our burdens, share our knowledge, and perhaps be small lights to others who may be struggling in silence. Stuff still sucks, I’ll grant you, but it can suck less if we’re open with each other, and can share our knowledge without feeling like it’s improper or gross or shameful to talk about the truth of what’s going on in our lives.
Photo by: ☺ Lee J Haywood