Does this sound familiar? You don’t feel well. Yep, sure enough you’ve got a cold/the flu/food poisoning and your body feels like crap. You’re sick. Your body isn’t working well and is giving you all kinds of nasty physical symptoms.
Your mental state begins to suffer too. You grow increasingly pessimistic, wonder if you’ll ever get over this ‘thing’, start to watch your self-esteem take a huge dive and wonder if your friends really care about you.
Your emotional well-being spirals down and you feel bad about everything. As a (normally) optimistic friend of mine told me yesterday, ‘After a week of this flu, I hate everybody and everything.’
The psychology of being sick
This is the psychology of being sick. When your physical state suffers, your mental state goes along for the ride. It’s true whether you have a cold or whether you’re dealing with a cancer diagnosis, the severity is different, but the basis experience is the same.
It’s normal to feel emotionally shitty when you feel physically lousy: they go together. Luckily, it’s usually temporary. So how do you work with the depression that comes with being sick?
Expect as little of yourself (and others) as possible: this isn’t so easy to do. You may, if you’re like me, berate yourself a bit for being sick, seeing it as a kind of personal weakness.
This attitude came from my Ohio farm boy father: ‘You go to work unless you’re on your deathbed’ was his credo. And he did… going to work when he was sick, feeling it was his obligation to ‘power’ through it.
I’m sure he shared his illness with lots of other people too. And maybe he felt better about himself for being so stoic. He was certainly raised that way. But, don’t do this yourself.
‘Treat yourself as you would a small child who was ill’
Don’t be stoic; be kind. Treat yourself as you would a small child who was ill. You wouldn’t scream at this child: ‘You better get over this fast or else you’re a loser,’ would you?
And don’t expect too much of other people either. Many of us feel vulnerable and needy when we’re sick, and expect our friends/spouse to somehow, magically, realize this and give us exactly what we need/want, without our asking for it, of course. They should ‘know’ what we need, our ego tells us, if they really love us.
This is bullshit. Most of us don’t know what our friends want/need when they’re sick. Hell, it’s hard enough to know what you want when you’re sick. When you feel under the weather, ask for what you want.
For you stoic types, this can be a real challenge. If you want an occasional check-in text or phone call, ask for it. If you have had the flu for two weeks and your fridge is empty, ask a good friend to go to the supermarket for you.
If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, as a good friend of mine recently was, think long-term: ask for what you want in the next few weeks or months, e.g., ‘I’d love it if you could come by occasionally for a short visit. Call me first to see if I’m up for it, but I’d love to see you.’
And, if you’re the friend of the sick person and they tell you nothing, ask them, ‘What can I do for you?’ Help them out.
Some people want to be left alone – others don’t
Lots of people want to be left alone. They don’t like the attention. If this is how your friend operates, respect their wishes. Give them what they want. An occasional short text: ‘Thinking of U. U OK?’ may be perfect for them.
Something I’m learning as I get older is to find the humor in things that used to really upset me. For example, when I had that debilitating flu recently, I had a nasty bout of diarrhea.
Yeah, I know, the problem no one talks about (because it’s not very ‘classy’, is it?) After 24 hours of continual bathroom trips, I told a good friend, ‘Well, I’ve found the humor in pooping my pants. I never thought I’d be in this situation, but here I am. Washing underwear, pajamas and my bedding on a daily basis.’
Too much information? Sorry, but my point is to try to find the humor in your situation. If possible, can you laugh a little about it? If not, no big deal. But, a little humor goes a long way in boosting your mental state.
For most of us, being sick eventually ends. Until it does, I hope that this column gives you some ideas on how to make it through as pleasantly – and cheerfully – as possible.
Michael Dale Kimmel is a psychotherapist and counselor based in San Diego: www.lifebeyondtherapy.com. His book, The Gay Man’s Guide to Open and Monogamous Marriage, is out now.