Oct 09 2005

A Few Lite Thoughts On Bucking People Up

Only 5000 Cute Pink Heart-Shaped Limited Edition Breast Cancer Awareness Pez dispensers will be produced! Get yours now!

There will come a time in your exciting young life when somebody you know experiences a traumatic life-changing event. She will be pretty bummed out as a result, and you will want to buck her up because (a) you read in Oprah Magazine that bucked-up people live longer, and (b) you are adverse to change and just want your old happy-go-lucky pal back, and (c) you don’t know what else the hell to do. So you will say to her–it is inevitable– "You’re strong! You’re brave! It’s going to be all right!"

And she will regard you dimly and reply, "I’m not fucking strong or brave, you ass, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about." At which point you will undoubtedly be moved to contradict her with an oration enlarging on the following theme:

"You are stronger than you think."

My advice is this: Pause. Reflect. What you are really saying when you recite this proverb is, "I override what you have just told me in order to obscure the complexity of your impending doom with my simplistic fortune-cookie platitude, and to inform you that, even though this is happening to you and not to me, I know better than you do, and to suggest that, since you are the victim of a traumatic life-changing event, your judgement is flawed and your perceptions are invalid."

That’s right. Telling her "you are stronger than you think!" is patronizing. Or maybe asinine. Of course you mean well, but take a moment to observe your friend closely. You will probably perceive that she is not a five-year-old, and hasn’t been for about 40 years. Because of her giant brain, she knows perfectly well that she does not possess superpowers of the sort you seem determined to ascribe to her. She also knows perfectly well that you are no visionary psychic, and that when you say, "it’s going to be all right," you are just blowing smoke up her ass.

In fact, "You’re stronger than you think" has never actually bucked anybody up in the history of the human bummer. If you don’t believe me, perhaps you will concede that it has, at least, failed to work in this instance. Your pal will understand that you don’t know what else to say, but she will also get the message that her being bummed out is unpalatable to you. She will feel for you. She will try to make you feel better by pretending to be comforted by your maudlin gurglings. Inwardly, though, she will sense a distance that wasn’t there before the traumatic life-changing event sent her reeling off on a trajectory vastly different from yours. She will feel marginalized by your well-meaning attempts to downplay its horror.

Because she is trying to tell you, "this shit is fucking fucked up and I’m a fucking mess," and she just wants you to fucking believe her.

[Note: The preceding remarks are intended to apply to non-virtual relationships between people who actually know each other. To those of you I have not had the pleasure of meeting in real life, and who have kindly written to tell me how brave I am, please refrain from taking offense. Believe me, I appreciate that it must seem that way to you. But seriously, I am still the same old dumbass I always was. Which is to say, I am motivated to endure my current tortures purely by unheroic instinct for self-preservation.]


1 ping

Skip to comment form

  1. TimT

    If I went round telling my friends that they were strong, they were invincible, they were women, hear them roar, I would probably get looked at very strangely and/or punched in the face.

  2. Sara

    It is funny how we all do that. I think we are trying to reassure ourselves, not so much you, that it’s all going to be okay. It’s a weird little exercise in magical thinking. And again, we all do it. I’m wracking my brain, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who didn’t. On the other hand, those of us who have been through some form of this all know how you feel and all desperately want to let you know that no matter how horrible and scary and depressing it all is — and yeah, it really, really is — it is possible to get through it, and you just might — ’cause look, we did. It’s meant to be a slip of hope, not a disempowering contradiction or smoke up your ass.

    The fact is, as you know, that no one knows what will happen. But we all want you to keep in mind, as a way of self-bucking-up, that survival and a return to a meaningful, enjoyable life are possible, no matter how terrified and sad you are right now.

    Another thing to look forward to: At some point it will [seem to] be your job to reassure everyone that you are “fine.” I’m not kidding. You may have no hair and you may be spontaneously puking your guts out in public and experiencing similarly delightful temporary symptoms of treatment, and yet you will be expected to smile and say, “Doin’ great!” to whomever asks. This will suck. However, to do otherwise, to tell people, “I feel like crap and am beginning to wonder why I have bothered to go through all this — oh, yeah, ’cause I want to spend more time eating tacos with my dog,” is to invite further burdens. People will explain to you that Jesus has you in his hands. (no, really) People — both relatives and perfect strangers you may meet at the grocery store — will insist on telling you that God will see you through, that you are strong, that you’re going to be just fine, that God never gives you anything you can’t handle, etc., etc., until you just smile and agree with them. Of course, then you should absolutely feel free to puke on them.

    For what it’s worth, I a perfect stranger will be thinking of you this week and hoping that everything goes smoothly, with a minimum of discomfort for you. I also hope they fucking get it all, with clean margins. Meanwhile, I recommend as much dog cuddling and tequila as you can stand.

  3. Andrea

    God, Twisty. You are a fucking rockstar.

  4. Summer

    Right up there with those platitudes: “You’re young and healthy! You’ll be fine!” and, for me, “You can always have another baby!”

    Last year I nearly went homicidal over those very words. People can be such assholes.

  5. deja pseu

    After my son suffered severe brain damage from lack of oxygen at birth, the one that drove me over the edge was, “You must be very special people for God to have given you this child/circumstance.”

    People want to believe that Every Cloud Has A Silver Lining, or that Everything Happens For A Reason because I think it helps people feel some sense of control. The reality is that life is random, and bad shit happens to good people sometimes, and that we’re so uncomfortable with anyone feeling bad, that we want it to be All Better now, which really doesn’t help them at all.

  6. Erin

    I always remember my mom’s words about being bucked-up when she had a miscarriage (I was 2 at the time, so I have to take her word for it). She says that all of the people who told her to be strong and brave, and that it was probably for the best, and that she should be grateful that she had a healthy child, and that (yes) she could always have another one, made her want to grab a sharp stick and start aiming for eyes and throats.

    The only person that really helped her, she said, was someone she didn’t know all that well, who told her “this is a shitty thing to have happen to you, and if I were you, I’d be a pissed-off wreck.” Then she volunteered to do concrete things, like take care of me for an afternoon, and make sure that the dog got fed. My mom thinks that what was comforting about it was that there was an acknowledgement of the intense suckitude of her circumstances without sugarcoating it with anything else. But there was also an offer of help for the mundane things of daily life, which said to her, “opt out of these things for a while, if you need to; they’ll be here when you’re ready.”

    If I could offer dog-care, or anything else, I would. So many thoughts are with you; mine are, too.

  7. Ron Sullivan

    I suspect that most of the “You’re so brave”* stuff was about that photograph in the bathroom mirror, which so very efficiently cut through great heaps of bullshit.

    I mean, of course you’re going for treatment, what the hell else ya gonna do? And it’ll suck plenty, and we all know the alternative would suck worse, and what really sucks is that you’ve got those sucky alternatives to choose from.

    At least no one here’s about to tell you you can always grow another boob.

  8. Ron Sullivan

    And please tell me you photoshopped those Pez dispensers. It’s Sunday morning, way too early for that much tackiness to exist in the real world. Please.

  9. Twisty

    Oh no, those Pez dispensers are real. Click the foto. It takes you to a “Collect’em All!” Pez fansite. Ha!

  10. Kerstin

    I thought of you when I read this the other day:

    “Cancer clarified things for me. I can now immediately recognize the person who wants something unhealthy from me, who wants my energy. I had to cut people out of my life. I would try to explain why. If someone comes to you and tells you that they can’t be your friend anymore, the perfect thing to say, if you loved them, would be, ‘God, I’m so sorry you feel that way. I’ll miss you. I’ll be here for you if you want to come back to this friendship.’ Well, no one said that to me. In the past, I never wanted to hurt anybody. But I realized I could ‘never want to hurt anybody’ all the way to my grave.” ~ Melissa Etheridge, Organic Style, Oct. 2005

    As a member of the matriarchy, I support your need to say whatever the hell you want, whenever you want, and to whomever you want.

    And know that complete strangers are pullin’ for ya.

  11. Chris Clarke

    Well, Twisty, I think it’s a bit presumptuous of you to think you know how you’re feeling better than some random person on the street does. I mean, you’ve got some nerve there!

  12. SF Knitter

    Hang in there. Thinking of you.

  13. kathy a

    the mother of my best friend in high school died when my friend was 17. her mom was a nurse, and she went home to die when it became clear she was terminal. nonetheless, people would send “get well soon” cards, or drop by and tell my friend, “i’m sure your mother will be fine soon.” they knew they were lying, too — you could not see my friend’s mother then and actually believe things would be ok, and they could hardly wait to scoot out the door, tossing platitudes in their wake. my friend passionately hated those people.

    a few people were just there. they offered their love, brought by food for the family, just sat and visited, took care of some of the things that needed to be done. they didn’t tell anyone how to feel, and didn’t lie. it’s been 30 years, and i still feel really grateful for that example of human caring.

  14. mimbreno

    I dunno, some mornings I think I just don’t have the strength or will to whip anyone’s ass, then somebody says “you’re stronger than you think” and lo, strength is given unto me.

  15. zwichenzug

    I really hope you’re right, because the last couple of years have been full of losses for my family and close friends, and all I’ve got to offer is, “Life sucks sometimes” and “I care.” I really wish that I could think of something to say that would make things better, but honestly, things look pretty bad to me.

  16. caroline

    erin and sara and kerstin and the others said it all perfectly. amen, sisters. i’m adding my voice here only to tell you here’s another one out there pulling for you and visualizing ferociously that all your margins are clear (thank you, erin, for the image).

  17. The Fat Lady Sings

    I’m with Sara on the dog-cuddling and tequila – and lots of both! Hell, Honey – all I want when the pain gets so bad I start screaming is someone to hold me while I weep. Then they can do the dishes. That means more to me than a few platitudes.

  18. CaliforniaDrySherry

    Thanks for this post. We all need to be reminded of this once in a while.

    It’s true what they say about “finding out who your real friends are” at times of crisis – but turns out it’s another one of those “irony” thingies. What an awful time to find out that someone you really liked is actually just a shallow, selfish, good-time friend. Adds insult to injury, to use another in this string of cliches. (Guess if they didn’t bear repeating, they wouldn’t be cliches.)

  19. Anders Widebrant

    The problem, really, is that “You’re strong! You’re brave! It’s going to be all right!” means nothing of the sort. It means “Become strong! Become brave! Become healthy! (And save me the trouble of dealing with your problems)”. Telling someone sincerely that you think, from experience, that they are strong or brave is another thing entirely. It’s a compliment, not an incantation.

  20. CafeSiren

    I think the best word that people posting on this thread have used to describe this “everything-happens-for-a-reason” or “things-will-get-better-soon” kind of reaction to personal tragedy is “inane.”

    I’ve never lost a boob, a parent, or a baby, but I’ve dealt with some traumatic-to-me situations in which all or part of my life seemed hopeless. And when a well-meaning person said something like “Don’t worry — X will happen soon” (or even more annoyingly: “God will take care of things when He knows you’re ready.”), I wanted to punch that person repeatedly in the face, while screaming “How the fuck would you know?!? You got some kind of fucking crystal ball? Tarot cards, maybe? Secrets of the fucking universe?”

    That I never once did this is something that I now regret.

    But… such experiences have been humbling. I know that I can sympathize, but almost never empathize with friends going through deep physical or emotional pain. To badly paraphrase Tolstoy in Anna Karenina: every person’s pain is goddamned awful in its own way. The best I can do is offer support, and ask the person to tell me what they need from me at the moment. If the answer is “I need you to go the fuck away,” I try to respect that, even if I don’t like it.

    Thanks for the post, Twisty. You have, as usual, made a point that needs to be made, directly and eloquently.

  21. CafeSiren

    …and, of course, for tragedy-inspired-kitsch, nothing (not even pez-for-the-cure) beats Precious Moments figurines. Check out this one, that is, according to the website, “often given to comfort those who have lost a child”:


    Other horrifying examples abound if you look through category “figurines,” subcategory “sympathy.”

    I suppose such things *could* possibly help me in my time of grief: give me a whole huge box of ’em, and I’ll spend the day chucking them at a wall.

  22. Julia

    When my husband died, after 17 months of living with a tumor, many people said, “It’s really a blessing that he’s gone.” I felt like say, “A blessing for whom? Not me! I would have been perfectly happy spending my life taking care of him. Half of my life is gone now, so please tell me who is being blessed, because it ain’t me. My life is shit.” I never said that, but I wanted to.

    So I won’t say “Buck up!” or “Think positive”.

    I will say this: You might have a very limited amount of time on this earth. You can sit and cry and moan about your fate, and be miserable for those days. Or you can cheer up, and enjoy whatever time you have, whatever way you can. The choice is yours.

    Somehow, I feel that a hearty “Keep fighting, you’re stronger than you think!” is nicer to say and hear.

  23. Masterfraud

    Twisty, have you seen this? A review of Didion’s memoir. I thought of you, and thought you might appreciate it. That bitch writes with knives, too.


  24. Kyra

    Something that’s taken me WAY too long to understand: all this positive-attitude, shrug-it-off-like-it’s-nothing bullshit would be wonderful, but it doesn’t work. And yes, I’ve made an ass out of myself spectacularly by offering that kind of advice. Thankfully, I’m over it.

    So, all I’ll say is, I hope the cancer disappears along with the boob, and may you be blessed with lots of GOOD things happening to you: intense cuteness of the puppy variety, many delicious shrimp tacos, and large amounts of the patriarchy-blaming courage to offer to shove someone’s Positive Mental Attitude (or their air conditioner) up their ass. (But offer to leave the cord hanging out so they can still have air conditioning.)

  25. d.e.i.x.i.s.

    I’m with Andrea. Twisty is rock and roll incarnate.

    I worship every thought in your sexy brain.

  26. kathy a

    i’ve been thinking a lot about the “brave” thing. i agree with ron sullivan, that probably most of the “you’re brave” posts referred to putting up that awesome, painful photo.

    it is a very graphic explanation of why this is not OK, why it sucks to hell — especially since it is not just an “after” photo, but also a “before” one, dammit.

  27. Chris Clarke

    God will take care of things when He knows you’re ready.

    God never slams a door in your face without chucking you out a window.

    “‘But Lord’, I said, ‘Why is there only one set of footprints on the beach during the times when I was in the most sorrow?’

    ‘Because,’ The Lord said gently, ‘Those times were when you realized that I am just the reified superstitious construct of quaint primate mentations of a species trying to grasp the immensity of the material universe. And how can I leave footprints if I don’t even fucking exist, you moron?'”

  28. Erin

    Chris, your version of Footprints made me suck hot cider down too fast, and then I nearly snorted it out of my nose. Thanks for the esophageal burns, buddy. Now I’ll always think of you when I read that particular bit of inspirational thought. You, and the pain.

  29. kathy a

    omg, i forgot to say — my usually non-violent self makes an exception for cancer. KILL the suckers. may your nurses and docs be non-aliens; may you get adequate pain meds; may your insight and humor remain intact after the ordeal; may your friends and puppy provide kisses, tacos, errands, company, and labor for those everyday chores.


  30. Elise

    I don’t remember ever saying that ‘strong’ thing to anyone, but I have been in lots of situations where I didn’t have a clue what the hell to say and I suspect that’s what happened with these people. No one has any guarantee they won’t be hit by a meteor on the way home tomorrow. We’re all in the same mortality boat, so to speak. There really isn’t anything to say. That’s why I’m a hermit. Good luck

  31. Chris Clarke

    Thanks for the esophageal burns, buddy.

    Erin, you’re going to be just fine.

  32. beth

    i totally understand why you could react the way you did to the statement that was made, but can you offer a suggestion as to what she could’ve said instead?

  33. bitchphd

    Twisty, did you see the article in the NYT about all this breast cancer awareness kitsch? Apparently you can even get pink tweezers, so that you can support breast cancer research while tweezing your eyebrows so as not to offend the patriarchy with excess eyebrow hair.

    Or, of course, you can just go through chemo and lose your eyebrow hair. But have no fear, you can cover your head with a patriotic, patriarchy-affirming head scarf! (Scroll down to the 3rd pic.) Because, according to this web site, “after dealing with the shock of a breast cancer diagnosis a woman’s next challenge is confronting the loss of her own hair.” Apparently the stuff like chemo and surgery is just a cakewalk.

    You know, I have to admit: I’d always figured the worst thing about a cancer diagnosis would be, well, the diagnosis, the fear, the illness, and the treatment. It simply never occured to me that the industry devoted to perky, patriarchy-perpetuating pinkness would be an additional burden.

  34. Carol

    I have twins, and frequently someone will marvel at how much work it seems to them twins must be. This “better you than me” attitude showed me how many tactless, clueless putzes there are out there. If people have a hard time not being tactless when kids are born, they’re sure as hell gonna be even more tactless when faced with a major disease.

    People always say things to me like “I don’t know how you did it.” My answer is always, “I did because I had no choice.” The babies are there and you do what’s needed and let the rest go. So to the extent it helps a tiny bit (not to suggest that having kids is like cancer) keep in mind that you will get thru this because you have to. It sucks, but you have no choice. You will do what’s essential and let the rest go. And we will all be pulling for you.

    And thank you for helping us understand how not to be a tactless, clueless putz around people with breast cancer.

  35. Chris Clarke

    can you offer a suggestion as to what she could’ve said instead?

    Not in the spirit of speaking for Twisty, mind you, becase that would be condescending and thus patriarchal and thus blameworthy, but rather in the spirit of jumping up to do some of the work while she’s busy, let me take a stab at this one. (I may get some of these wrong.)

    1) “Wow.”
    2) “That sucks.”
    3) “How are you feeling?”
    4) “Man, that really sucks.
    5) “How are you getting home from the hospital? Do you need a ride?”
    6) “Do you have my cell phone number?”
    7) “Is it OK if I come by when you get home and make you some Caldo tlalpeño from my grandmother’s recipe? She used to put tons of chipotles in it; I’m pretty sure it cures cancer.”
    8) “Man, I just can’t get over how much this sucks.”
    9) “Is it going to bother you if I call to check in?”
    10) “I’ve got a couple of 22 rifles and a truckload of Breast Cancer Bears and a keg; you feel like spending the afternoon plinking?”


    – Chris, blabbing way too much here today but it still beats working

  36. emjaybee

    I like the rifles and bears suggestion especially, Chris. That would be a fabulous afternoon, indeed.

    When my dad died, I remember much of the same type of crap–and I got into the habit of telling people I was fine just so I wouldn’t have to listen to them tell me why it was all for the best if I complained.

    I was in college at the time, and what got me through was my ancient, crotchety, (patriarchy-blaming) English prof, who offered me no trite phrases, but told me flat out that it would get better but would be horrible first, and that I should drop some classes because I was going to be too exhausted to deal with all of it at once. She was absolutely right and told me just what I needed to know.

  37. nolo

    I’d go for the plinking too, but only if we could bring a bushel of Precious Moments figurines and a clay target trap. Even if ya missed one, it’d still be great to see it go flying through the air.

    Man, I hate those things. But I am falling in love with Chris.

  38. norbizness

    Self-preservation is the best kind of preservation there is, right behind the New Orleans Preservation Jazz Hall Band and mayhew jelly preservation.

  39. kathy a

    you could probably talk me into an exception to non-violence for the figurines, too. i bet they smash up really nicely. [bonus tip from martha: broken pottery makes for good drainage at the bottom of a potted plant.]

  40. nicky

    Havin been there, I’ve been thinking all day about what to say on this post. This is going to sound ugly, but here it is:

    There’s really nothing appropriate to say. There just isn’t. You can’t possibly put yourself in her place because you haven’t been there, and deep down, you’re frankly relieved that it’s her instead of you. She doesn’t want you to necessarily say anything. Perhaps, “fuckin’ shit. Goddam, this is just fuckin’ fucked up.” That’s all. Sit there and gaze at the floor. Absorb the disbelief and terror and anger with her. She doesn’t expect you to make it any better. She knows you’re deep down secretly relieved it’s not you, that if she has it it seems to lessen the odds somehow that you will too. But she’s just run smack dab into the unavoidable realization that she’s going to die–someday–of something. Maybe this; probably not. But the Sword of Damocles has been hung over her head. It’s over yours, too, you just don’t know it yet. She does. You aren’t there yet, and she doesn’t want to be there yet, but she is, and she can’t turn back.

  41. Twisty

    If I weren’t such an idiot, I would have posted what Nicky said, instead of what I said. Although I probably would’ve worked in the word “fucktard” somewhere.

  42. Pinko Punko

    I’d probably just play Coldplay’s “Fix You” to Twisty. Because since having my eyes opened to the enormity of patriarchy, I now see it everywhere, especially when at the movies or watching TV (in representational situations). And that song is the fucking epitome of patriarchy. It wouldn’t cheer Twisty up, but I would hope that it would spur a little vim or obstreperousness. And if that didn’t work, I’d say, can I make ya some virtual Cochinita Pibil or something?

  43. Steph

    Thanks for this post Twisty. My dad has terminal colon cancer and is undergoing palliative chemo that’s keeping him alive until it stops working.

    I am tired of people doing the, “maybe he’ll get better routine” with me because everyone knows it doesn’t work that way. False hope doesn’t kill cancer cells.

    It’s only slightly more annoying than my family’s “dance around the subject” policy that means we ask Dad how he’s feeling (the chemo is very very rough on him) and then ignore the fact that he sleeps for days at a time and pretend that it’s okay. While my grandmother goes to church to pray for his soul and tells us all about it. Yikes.

    Because really, my dad is going to die before he should and it really really sucks.

    I wonder what a precious moments “I heard you have cancer and that totally bites” figurine would look like?

  44. manxome

    I came to terms with the inability to come up with something magical to say to people dealing with crisis quite some time ago. My silence became an ability to listen and acknowledge. I strive to communicate simply that I am “there” without being a burden, to help only if I can do it without hindering. Those things, I believe, are the real key to support.

    Twisty, I have been “listening” to you with vigor, acknowledge every patriarchy-blaming morsel, can’t fucking stand that Precious Moments shit, and would so make out with you.

    All hail the power of PMA! (Patriarchy Maligning Allotments)

  45. Angie

    To a woman with a terminal disease: “When you die, you can be my guardian angel.”

    To a family who lost a son even though he lived 15+ years longer than his original diagnosis: “Well, at least you had him with you longer than you thought you would.”

    To a 19-year-old after the sudden loss of his younger brother: “Well, now you’ll know what it’s like to be an only child.”

    What the fuck is wrong with people? Work that morphine button, Twisty!

  46. Sass

    When I was 26 my best friend got a rare form of kidney cancer and died within two months of her diagnosis. I can’t tell you how many stupid things came out of my mouth and how many stupid things we (her friends) did while trying to cope with her rapidly progressing illenss, her children, doing the “right” thing, our feelings, university and all the people around who didn’t realize the world had changed and was never going to be the same again.

    One of our most spectacular failures was having lit birthday candles on her birthday cake because the cancer had progressed to her lungs and ah duh, she had no breath to blow them out. I can only hope that some of the stupid words and actions translated to I love you and this sucks cause that’s what I meant by them. I simply want to say I will be thinking of you.

  47. beth

    She knows you’re deep down secretly relieved it’s not you, that if she has it it seems to lessen the odds somehow that you will too.

    that’s quite an assumption.

  48. yami

    The thing about the pottery shards and the pot drainage is a lie, actually. Assuming you have an adequate distribution of holes in the bottom of your pot, adding crushed up figurines merely reduces the total volume of available soil for no good reason. Plus the Precious Moments ooze is bad for plants (unless they’re hybrid tea roses or some crap like that).

  49. Wordlackey

    Damn, I come late to these threads. Is it just me or has it become very popular here lately?

    Several thoughts on this topic: I was particularly caught by your description of the person contradicting you about your own feelings. I’ve always thought a valuable part of feminism was the whole “validating your feelings” thing. That is, your feelings are real. None of this “Oh, I’m sure you don’t *really* feel that way.”

    This leads to the insult of the Newage (pronounced like “sewage”) head trip of “you create your own reality” and “it’s a chance for personal growth experience.” I’ve lived with someone who’s been chronically ill for 15 years and near death for some of that time. Some of the worst responses were from those people who thought she could heal herself with “white light” or meditation. If she was just spiritual enough…

    Erin’s words above also resonated with me: The people who are actually willing to *help* with practical tasks were warmly welcomed. The people with platitudes and vapors, not so much.

    Anyway, best wishes to you on getting through this ordeal. You sure don’t need my permission to be as cranky and pissed as you want about this. The problem with this virtual stuff is I’m in Mass. and you’re in Texas. I can’t run errands for you or fix you a nice mole so I’m reduced to the words-not-action role. Still, if I can help, drop a line or post what you need. I’m reading.

  50. Josef K

    Actually, when I said you were brave, I meant more for putting up that photo than for going through what you’re going through. Not many people would have the taboo-smashing courage to display a picture of a breast that isn’t a sexy, airbrushed plaything. I’m so glad you did.

  51. Christopher

    This is one of those things that I always try to remember: You shouldn’t lie or condescend to people.

    Lord knows I’m not that good at it, but I’m trying.

    This is something that I learned from dealing with depression and highschool; Just about the only things your parents can say to you is that it will get better when your older, which, while often true, is deeply deeply annoying and unhelpful.

    In fact, the fact that I did get through my adolescence and it is better now hasn’t made me any less bitter about people saying that to me back in the day.

    I can only imagine how much worse it mut be to hear that kind of thing in worse situations.

    Of course, just saying “I’m so sorry about this and I’ll do what I can if you need anything” seems so… unhelpful. You want to do more and make sure everything turns out all right. So you resort to magical thinking, as somebody said above.

    I guess all I can say is good luck Twisty! You really do rock.

  52. Shaula Evans

    Twisty, I’ve found your blog recently (through a link from Feministe or Feministing on your fashion series), and I’m a new, regular reader.

    I am currently sick and I’ve been off work for over a year now as a result. Last time I was this sick, 6 years ago, I almost died. On one hand, I’m lucky, because it isn’t the big C; on the other hand, I show no signs of getting my full health back, and may never have the life I had before.

    I too receive regular invocations to think positively and promises that it will all work out or that I’ll “get better soon”. On good days, I understand that people are trying to express love and concern. On all the other days, I feel like if they can look me in the eye and lie through their teeth about my health and my prognosis…then it is hard to trust anything else they say to me on any other topic.

    I’ve gone several rounds with my husband on this. I think he finally understands that sometimes it is hard for me to see the love that underlies the Big Shiny Platitudes–instead of saying “it will all be okay,” he now just assures me that he loves me, no matter what, and he’ll make the best and most with me of whatever life we have together and whatever my health is like on any given day. That helps a whole lot more.

  53. Annie

    Cancer is a total asshole and I am sorry you are going through this. I wish you speedy healing, strength when you need it and for no tacky pink plastic crap to come within 2 miles of you while you are getting better. Or even afterward, because it’s all tacky, really and no one should have to suffer it.

  54. Tony Patti

    Love is not behind the big shiny platitudes. It’s defensiveness, a way of distancing yourself from what has happened. What are people doing when they say things like “You’re strong!” but denying, to your face, the fact that you have a disease, and by definition, you are weaker than when you were healthy? And all the other positive tropes follow the same sad logical path.

    Nothing is appropriate but sympathy, an emotion that has become tainted with positivity in our culture, but which has a place in everyone’s emotional core. The problem with real sympathy is that it hurts, and it feels like the pain the sufferer is feeling. So they can’t resist trying to kill the pain with their little messages.

    My sister got breast cancer over 10 years ago, went through the whole deal with chemo and everything and got better for a decade or so. But she wasn’t a very healthy person in any way; she drank too much, liked painkillers too much, would never eat anything healthy or fresh ever, smoked like a Turk, and hated herself. This was not a recipe for success is dealing with cancer in remission, and it came back, and she fought all the various mestasizing results pretty well, but eventually died of sitting around eating Oxycontin like they were breath mints, and her insides fell apart.

    My point is that I think, from a rational viewpoint, that if they could keep my extremely unhealthy sister alive that long that my dear Twisty will have a much longer and happier life than she did, and that, really, all this positive mental attitude stuff has a basis in fact, though not the fascist “be-happy-my-way-or-else-you’re-not-trying” thing that they try to shove down your throat.

    Another point I want to make about sympathy is that the latest trend in mental health is about how to make yourself happier, rather than simply stop being depressed, which I find pretty interesting, since being happier has always impressed me by feeling really good. They’ve found that people feel better when they help other people. I can vouch for this; at one of the lowest points of my life I went to take care of my mom after her back surgery and taking care of her helped heal my pain.

    So you see how difficult it is to feel better when you have people who feel great yelling at you to feel better because they feel better about themselves because they think they are helping you. When you have everyone around you helping you and you have nobody to help yourself, you are in a position to feel more miserable than ever before because it’s all about you and your problem all the fucking time.

    Luckily you have a puppy who doesn’t care if you are sick and whatever you do to help him, even filling his bowl, feels much much better than all the sympathy everyone is inadvertantly poisoning your mood with.

  55. MsKate

    For some reason, I’m thinking of the scene in Defending Your Life, where the recently deceased character’s life is being reviewed by those in charge of afterlife.

    This man had been in a snowmobile accident, and crawled, badly injured, to safety. His “advocate” argues that this shows that he has courage. The panel is not impressed because, while this was a pretty nasty ordeal for him, they felt he was driven soley by self preservation.

  56. JoAnne Rodriguez

    I am horrified for you and your family and and keep checking my own breasts compulsively. I look at my own PK, and I get so scared for YOU when I imagine how I would feel if it were ME that tears come to my eyes. I continue to be amazed at the apparently limitless honesty of your accounting, and I truly hope you come out of this okay.

  57. Finn

    Tony sez, “Nothing is appropriate but sympathy, an emotion that has become tainted with positivity in our culture”

    Yeah, what gives with that anyway?

    I once read an article about how the Japanese people had to be taught by the drug companies that they were depressed so they could sell them anti-depressants. The Japanese, the idjits, had mistakenly presumed that a certain amount of malaise and sadness was just part of life. Thankfully, our good friends at Pfizer, et al, hipped them to their ‘problem.’

    Hey, Twisty, you know that it’s possible that a few people have mistaken you for someone who is ‘stronger than you think’ because of your gift of strength in command of rhetoric and expression, right? In print, at least, you seem like a very strong person. Maybe that’s what they’re responding to.

    The ironic thing about the true “be strong” people is not only that they truly believe in that sort of faith-based thing, but they also believe that they should up the ante and offer even more “be strong” stuff if you refuse the first round. Your refusals only make them more insistent because they believe they must be having a subconscious effect… your refusals only prove that they’ve gotten through, so they should continue. Etc, ad nausem.

    I would like to echo the sentiment of, I believe it was Erin, who said something about doing practical things to help. And, if I were closer, I’d be there in a heartbeat to fix whatever needs fixin (I’m reasonably handy). As it is, there’s not much of anything practical I can do.

    I guess it’s that helplessness that makes us reach for something to say, even if there isn’t anything.

    It’s these moments, where rational thought fails to provide consolation, that even the wisest among us can become disappointed with intelligence and wish for something else.

  58. Zuska

    I can’t express how grateful I am to have found this blog, this post, and all these comments. Two examples from my life: my brother at age 17 was severely brain-damaged during a routine surgery – not given enough oxygen – confined to a nursing home for life. Nurse says to my mother: Well, don’t be so upset, you have five other children. Me: had a stroke that left me with chronic disabling migraines, lost my job, developed many new food triggers including anything with onion and CHOCOLATE, dammit. More than one person said to me – It must be nice to take some time off from work and relax. People do not want to hear it, they want you to be fine, they don’t want to know it can happen to them. All I can say is thanks to everyone here who understands this, and Twisty, I am so sad for you, and I can’t even imagine what it is like. I am lucky to have one good friend who NEVER says cheer up or buck up, and I hope you have at least one (non-virtual) friend like that too. Violent fantasy is great – I’ll be trap-shooting those Precious Moments figurines in my mind for quite some time.
    Love to all of you.

  59. elfy

    First of all, hi! I was sent from Alas the Blog, and I wanted to wish you good luck!

    Also, I’m with you on the whole “you are strong” bit. It’s like, I know, that I’m strong, you moron, and so what? I still feel like shit and I wish none of this was happening. Then they come back with “I just know you can handle this, you have such strong spirit!” And it’s like, well, I’m here, didn’t commit suicide, so yes, I seem to be handling things, but that’s really not the point!

    When I was going through any number of the things life dished me out (the near severing of the spine cord long time ago or abusive relationship more recently, for example) and people were doing the “I believe that you can survive this, because you’re strong,” I started answering, “That’s what I’m afraid of,” because I believe in justice – give an awkward suggestion, get an awkward reply.

    A lot of people seem to think (and this view is supported by this culture BIG TIME) that the thing to tell to someone going through hardships should be something BIG! Something IMPRESSIVE! Something you can frame and sell at Hallmark store.
    I think – and maybe I’m wrong and speaking for myself only – what someone in such a situation really wants to hear is something along the lines of, “I wish you didn’t have to go through this,” or “What can I do to help out?” Even though I’d answer “It’s ok, I don’t need help,” just knowing that someone’s shoulder was there if I did cease to be “strong” would’ve been so nice.
    The best thing I heard was, “Wanna cry? My evening’s free.”

    So, even though I really have no idea if there is anything feasible I could do to help, and you have no idea who I am, I still wish you didn’t have to go through this shit, and if there is anything I can do to help, I’d be happy to.

    Also, the prayer thing? If we assume God is ever-merciful and omni-powerful and knows what we little peeps need better than we do, what makes anyone think that He’ll be like, “Well, this whole experience was to teach you this and that, but since you asked, I’ma cancel it.” So much for faith and “trusting one’s life to God.”

    Oh, and I’m a very much of a positive attitude towards life person, but DAIM, if anyone tried to sell me on an acronym, I think I could do a pretty good version of a Rosemary’s Baby.

    And if anyone else tells you, “You’re strong,” tell them, “Yeah, but that doesn’t mean this shit’s not heavy.”

  60. Erin

    Lemme know if, once you’ve passed the pain-meds-make-my-brain-fuzzy phase, you need any books. That’s about the best that I can offer from afar.

  61. ae

    Twisty, I’m so very sorry. I just couldn’t write anything yesterday after I read this post and then mistakenly went a post or two back and read some asshole named Nancy’s comment. I cried instead. Fucking people. Good and bad. You’ve got lots of pals here pulling for you, and I hope our collective good thoughts (and actions) provide some succor.

    And never before have I thought a thing about this saying they have down here, but it means something to me now: I hold you in my heart.

    {{{{{{{{{ Twisty }}}}}}}}}

  62. kcb

    There are some shiny clueless people in the world, Twisty, as a lot of people on this thread can attest. My personal favorite attempt to Heal With Words came from an old friend who called after my son’s stillbirth and told me, “Someday you’ll be glad this happened.” To which I could only reply, “I think you’re wrong.”

    The best guidelines I’ve heard for dealing with the bereaved, the ill and the traumatized are to (a) never, ever let a sentence pass your lips that begins with “At least…” and (b) just say you’re so fecking sorry and what can you do to help.

    And remember, when anyone tries to get you to “buck up” you are within your rights to tell them to buck off.

  63. Orange

    Fucking cancer. It sucks ass.

  64. DivorceDiva

    This post is, quite simply, awesome. When my sister was fighting the cancer that killed her two months ago today we heard all that crap on a regular basis. She was never one to take much bullshit and would basically respond with whatever truth was happening to her at the moment.

    By emphasizing the “brave” and “strong” over all else you don’t allow that person to be scared, to be sad and to be human. You rob them of what little bit of normalcy they have left.

  65. murky

    The patriarchal tool chest has just the remedy. You hyperbolize how pathetic he is. Brings out the fighting spirit, or at least one flavor thereof in those lucky abused few.

  66. kathy a

    with all due respect, murky — what the hell are you saying?

  67. Erin

    this made me think of this post

  68. murky

    All due respect, it’s probably not worth explaining.

  69. Amy Adams

    Hi! I am a friend of Mona Peters’ and I am hanging out at her house. She showed me your blog – I am a writer and teach English at St. Ed’s, and i really like your twisted crabby but funny style. I have a question. Yes I agree that breast cancer is freakishly fucked up. And I agree that it is not great to hear things like “You are strong” etc. (I have not had breast cancer by the way) and I am really curious what you think WOULD be a good thing to say. To anyone who is in a really fucked up place – cancer, death of a loved one, etc. I’ve always thought it was best to talk about it, and not pretend everything is ok and I do that, but I would like to know what you think. As a person who hears things, what would you like to hear? Just have the friend listen to you, really hear what you are saying, talk to you about it, and not pretend everything is ok? Sort of? By the way – great site, very honest – and I do truly wish you a long lifetime of health and fun, and for this horrible experience to soon appear in your rear view mirror and get smaller and smaller as you drive and drive away. Love – Amy

  1. At My Knits End

    Sun Daily Tab

    A Few Lite Thoughts On Bucking People Up. “Telling her ‘you are stronger than you think!’ is patronizing. Or maybe asinine. Of course you mean well, but take a moment to observe your friend closely. You will probably perceive that…

Comments have been disabled.