Uneven aging: The Organ Recital

 Margie from Toronto left a comment (excerpt quoted here) in my last post on Uneven Aging: 
"I think the toughest thing for me is dealing with those who do "wallow" - some friends almost seem to see it as a competition - who can be in the most pain - who is taking the most meds - who has the most doctors' appointments! I come from the Stoic end of things - "don't complain - just deal" so, while I try to be sympathetic, in some cases I find that I'm really limiting my time with certain individuals just because of this issue. Any tips on dealing with this part of the equation?"

My initial response to this pertinent question:

"... it is very easy for people to collude. You see it also in the workplace that develops a culture of whining about what's not right. People lose, or seriously impair, their sense of agency. Illness evokes vulnerability, and those feeling shaky can take a certain support from "everybody's going through it". But they can become unaware that continual complaints wear others, and also their own spirit, down. 

Take the breaks you need. If you have a practice that opens your heart so that you can summon compassion in the times you are with those friends, do that. But also, permit yourself breaks and the distance, it's better than sitting there feeling fed up. More to come very soon, thanks so much for the question."

Here's the 'more to come':

The essential step is to deal with yourself before dealing with him or her. 

1. What feelings arise when you are in those conversations? 

Impatience? Boredom? Frustration? Sadness?

If you ignore your emotional responses to such conversation, they build up until you walk out, blow up, or make a sarcastic remark. Try to discriminate between a feeling—genuine emotions— and judgment (
"I feel they are self-absorbed.") or analysis ("Not one of these people knows what it's like to be really sick.")

If  we get stuck in judgment, it's far harder to access compassion. 

2. What would you prefer?

Can you hang in for a bit of medical storytelling but not the entire saga? Or perhaps you are like me with hockey, anything after ten seconds is too much. 

Ask for what you would prefer, in positive language: "I can hang in with the surgical details for another few minutes, but then could we talk about Olga's new apartment?" Saying what you do want is more constructive than saying what you don't.

Why do they go on and on?

At some level most persons know that such conversations suck the life out of an exchange, but they may go ahead anyway. 

Five factors that may be in play:

1. We have created an high-disclosure culture. Programs like The Doctors and Dr. Oz mine health issues, treatment, and endless personal stories— the more graphic the better. Before lunch you can see a stranger's uvula and watch a cardiac catheterization. Provided with these examples, some broadcast matters once kept private.

2. If a person finds a circle who enjoy the topic, that's what they'll talk about. Bridge players can dissect bidding for an entire evening, fishers will parse every catch: you get people with a mutual interest or together, look out.  'Organ recitals' are a way of bonding: we are on this road together. That's powerful when you're scared, and diminished capacity is scary.

The ailment chat is also related to life stage. The job, sports or mom talk is replaced by hernia repairs and knee surgery. When the median age edges past fifty, you'll have to decide if you want to jump in with your blood pressure problem. 

Some persons are more health-focussed than others, but for everyone, aging moves physical concerns up the list. 

3. Behind every complaint is a boast. In this case the boast may be, Hey, I made it through. Hey, I'm still here. The complaint/boast is a fascinating duality, look at it next time you complain.

What to do?

Sometimes, you have the energy to listen and witness friends' experiences. You did this for friends' job losses, for the kids who wanted to talk about broken hearts; heck, I even listened to two hours of an upholsterer's financial problems. 

Other times, you may simply have other needs, for example, for fun, stimulation, learning, or mutuality. (No, it is not just about your gall bladder, Joe). 
When it's an utter drag, you could ask for a change of topic, or, if the rest of the group is hanging on every word, go in the other room and do the dishes, as I did when a woman at an all-woman's dinner party launched into a menopause history longer than a Russian novel.

If you are a stoic, able to bear a great deal on your own, celebrate that quality; realize it is not everyone's bent. When you feel your patience eroding, step back for as long as you need. If your retreat becomes habitual, 
it will be clear you that aren't engaged in those conversations.  

My mom and her friend Mrs. Dean spoke nearly every week for over fifty years. When they were older, Mom would ask, "Naomi, how are you?" and the response was, "Terrific, if you don't ask for details." This was their sole acknowledgement of the infirmities of aging, and their mutual agreement to not dwell on them. 

Probably two women after your own heart, Margie!


Janice Riggs said…
Wise. So much to think about here. As always, I am SO grateful that you take the time to share these thoughts with us all; you enrich our lives.
Thank you for addressing this issue and giving us so many different ways of looking at things.

I agree that the "over sharing" phenomenon is a big issue - things that used to be considered private, and not for general consumption, are brought up in the most public of circumstances - to my horror - I'll just have to accept that others are perfectly comfortable discussing such matters in public - but I don't have to participate and I especially don't have to join in with my own details! :-)

I think the best solutions I've found is a) limiting my time with certain individuals - and accepting that some of my time with them is going to involve hearing about these health issues - or b) ensuring that we have enough to keep us occupied so that we have something new to discuss i.e. going to an art exhibit or visiting somewhere new to all of us - distraction can often work.

I do have to work on being kinder - I'm great when someone has been injured, had surgery, experienced a bereavement - that sort of acute situation. I am more than willing to be there for them and to help in any way. I'm not as good with those I see as "wallowing" or "malingering" - I have to learn to accept that in a way this is also an illness - a cry for help in it's own way. I will do my best but I also reserve the right to, at times, "Go and do the dishes"!

And yes, I would have loved your mom and her friend! That's the way to deal with life and just get on with things!
Rita said…
As we age, it seems our world narrows down, because we often just can't do as much. Some will meet this challenge by actively seeking what they CAN do. Others get their excitement by excessively focusing on their Dr. appointments and various treatments, breathlessly announcing their latest health bulletin. I avoid those people. Others have health issues and may discuss them briefly, I have no problem with that, as long as it's not the ONLY topic of conversation.
LauraH said…
Love the way your mom and her friend agreed to handle things!

Ditto Margie's comments. I've learned to limit time spent with certain friends, just can't take the ongoing saga, not just physical problems but everything else. For some, it seems as though an issue, a problem, a lousy circumstance is a 'must' for every conversation. One such friend has expressed her need to talk about these things and if that works for her then she should do so. But maybe hire a professional? I think those who need to constantly unburden themselves don't understand the wear and tear on the listener. She may feel better but what about me? I certainly don't.

I like your suggestions and will try to keep them in mind for the next such occasion. Thanks for another thought provoking post.

Unknown said…
Great topics. I think that most of the people who go and on about their problems are mostly lonely and just want to be part of that club.
They really don't listen to anyone else and just need a warm body across from them to hear and validate them. It is so sad...

Melissa O'Neill said…
My mother always said "How are you?" Is a social greeting, not an enquiry about your health. And the correct response is always "Very well, thank you. And how are you?"
Melissa, in some cases when the person is obviously ill or known to be, a slightly different response - not a long disgression - might be more appropriate.

One thing that gets me is organ recitals on the bus - people will get quite graphic about surgery and such and utterly forget that they are surrounded by strangers.
Duchesse said…
LauraH: Any protracted problem can wear out friends, if the person enduring the situation is unaware or simply needs a great deal of support. With a chronic illness, that support may need to be in place for the duration, which can be more than a friend can bear.

Hiring a professional is one idea; there are also support groups for people with certain health issues, usually led through an association. (My friend who had ovarian cancer is deeply grateful to Wellspring in your city for such services.)

Duchesse said…
Melissa O'Neill: Did our mothers know one another? (However, when she was very ill, she did tell close friends she was "a bit under the weather", and they knew what she meant.)

lagatta: I also hear people's other intimate life circumstances, what is it about buses?
emma said…
Lagatta - I was once in a lineup for jury selection - the woman in front of me was doing such an organ recital, I thought, "If we both get selected for jury duty, I may have to kill her!" (Luckily, I was not chosen!)

I've also been disconcerted by workmates who have had a ghoulish interest in my health issues. I tried to keep my responses very general...but man, how intrusive!
RoseAG said…
Sometimes you can engineer the way you spend time with people so that they don't fall back on their favorite topic(s) - namely talking about themselves. I think the popularity of book and movie clubs is partially because it gives interactions structure. You get together around the topic of something else. That doesn't mean the conversation doesn't diverge into personal talk, but if the person talk becomes overwhelming the conversation can be steered back towards to matter at hand.

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