You see my smiling Psychology Today face shot. The healthy grin, the makeup, the styled hair in no way captures the physical pain I once suffered for eight years. Indeed, prolonged and undiagnosed physical suffering quickly morphed to mental depression and considerations of suicide. How often did "Miss Manners" consider overdosing on pills to relieve the pain? How often did she bang her head against any available concrete wall to temporarily remove the physical vice that perpetually encased her head?
Eventually diagnosed with a massive brain tumor that wrecked havoc on my head and its interrelated bodily mechanisms, I understand pain. Indeed, I'm expert in the subject matter.
Here follow, in no particular order, suggestions to help your fellow human beings (regardless of their emotional connection to you) survive the mundane week-long "bug of the week" to traumatic ordeals that demand years of recovery.
1. My hope should you face illness is a supportive work environment. My UC department head, Dr. Teresa Sabourin, quickly completed official documentation that allowed a three-month medical leave of absence and a part-time return to active teaching duty when medically approved. Extravagant flowers were sent, much more than an "adjunct professor" might otherwise have received. The blooms were accompanied by her handwritten note commenting I was loved and safe.
The point? High or low on the organizational power chart, legitimate sick people need advocacy from their leadership. Don't be the employer who sends the $9.99 "blue-light special" blooms to the dock loader and the $150.00-plus prime selection to a person of bow-down rank. When people hurt, occupational status shouldn't matter. If you disagree, I'm calling a spade here. Chances are you're the leader who only motivates select people. I wouldn't want you as my employer. I doubt I'm the only one.
Employers, consider "above and beyond" measures that guarantee faithful allegiance to you and exceptional employee performance once back on the job. For a longer-term illness, generosity and continuity reap dividend. Consider the following, but also brainstorm your own unique approaches to validation.
Boss Teresa continually sent handmade cards signed by all faculty members, no easy feat considering staggered teaching schedules. She even visited my parents' house post-surgery. I recovered in my childhood bedroom and never forgot the day my work boss stopped by my childhood home. She distributed homemade casseroles, a crystal bowl with Hersey kisses, several gossip magazines (with an explanation that even "sick people" need Hollywood gossip), and a calming arrangement of soothing lavender blooms.
2. Have a candid dialogue with your employer about your wishes for illness-information dissemination. In my case, colleagues acknowledged I had a severe situation. I was missing classes, rushed to the ER room weekly, and admitted to hospitals every month for stabilization. My declining health was no secret. Had it been, however, I'd have wanted an interpersonal discussion mutually determining the best way to proceed. Who should be told what? A safe guideline is releasing such delicate information on a "need-to-know" basis.
3. If you're uncertain whether the sick person wishes to discuss their current health status in the workplace, follow their lead. I varied. Some days I wanted people to know of my pain and sought empathy. Other days I sought diversion and merely wanted to fulfill role of listener (helped my mind focus elsewhere). Mostly, ensure you acknowledge our presence, just like someone in current good health. We're sick; we're not invisible.
4. Many people approach interpersonal conversations with the question "How are you feeling?" Your intentions are noble, I understand. But we've been repeatedly asked this by the medical community hundreds of times. One good suggestion is "Would you like to talk?" and allow us to make the determination. Other good options are "I'm thinking of you," or "Here's a story you'll love".
Of course, customize your comments. I want to hear about the latest Harry Potter movie, the most recent charming quip uttered by my beloved 6-year old niece Caitlyn, or how a former student bought me floating green balloons as a "pick me up", knowing that green's my favorite color and I find balloons floating circles of enchantment.
5. If you know someone is sick, be wary of voicing the dreaded "You look great!" comment. I'm sure your intent is righteous, but many illnesses do not overtly manifest through one's physical appearance.
6. Only offer medical advice if the patient is receptive. First gauge their interest. Ask, "Are you happy with your medical team and prescribed treatment"? Proceed from there. Many well-intentioned people suggested new doctors, treatments (standard and alternative) and various websites to consult. I quickly became fatigued (and frustrated) by the hordes who'd recommend acupuncture for my head pain. I had a brain tumor that pushed my eyeballs way out of alignment; acupuncture was not my solution.
Continue onto Manner Mistakes Part II, found here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-image-professor/201005/manner-mistakes-when-people-are-sick-part-ii
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