when empathy is a four letter word
This afternoon, while taking a break from work, I found myself on Facebook–scrolling, as one does. (Am I the only one who feels like this scrolling we all do desensitizes us to real things?).
I came across a link to an article about this older woman who got lost on the Appalachian Trail a few summers ago. It took them years to find her body. I clicked on the link because of the picture–her beaming face–the last one anyone ever took of her–just days before the things that happened that led to her death.
It was a heartbreaking story. She had overcome so many odds, having made it to the last 200 miles of the trail–in Maine–only to get lost while going off-trail to use the bathroom. She was only a few miles away from a trail that would have gotten her out to her husband who was meeting her every so often because she couldn’t carry all the supplies she’d need to make it the whole way. The woman had lasted a month and had only a day’s worth of food with her when she got lost. She had tried to text her husband. She had left instructions for rescuers–when they found her dead–to inform her daughter and husband.
While reading this–and looking at this woman’s face–I felt a mix of horror that this had happened to her; outrage that they gave up trying to find her after just a handful of days; grief that she had to come to terms with her mortality; sadness for the painful death that came upon her; and admiration for this woman’s fighting spirit and love for her family–even when she was wasting away.
Then I made the mistake of reading the Facebook comments. 70% of the comments were people sermonizing about all the things she did wrong–warning others to not be stupid like this woman–but feeling pity for the family. 20% were people being kind–sharing their admiration for her and sadness over her tragic end. And 10% were people fighting with each other over comments one or another made that they felt crossed the line or were too whatever.
It was a classic “don’t read the comments” moment. I know better, and yet still.
How many times a day do I see this shit? How many times a day does it happen on things I share? On things my friends share? For a while, I just stopped reading and stopped commenting. But some things stick out and grab you. So you read. And you want to say something. But you don’t.
At least not there. I’m posting it here instead.
No one is perfect. We all say and do things that aren’t wise. We are often hurtful, mean, and cruel. Sometimes, we don’t even remember it. I’ve done it. You’ve done it. It sucks every single time. And most days, we get to keep on living and can make it better–right–if we want to. Until that one day, when it’s over. You don’t get a do-over. You don’t always have all the things you need to fix it. Sometimes, other things win. Bodies give out. Patience wears thin. We give up. This is life, for better or for worse.
It is easy to point out woulda-shoulda-coulda when we’re not in that oh-shit moment. It’s easy to see all the cracks in everything from a distance. It’s easy to disconnect from pain and grief and sadness. It’s easy to be insensitive under the guise of “I’m only trying to help.” To pity instead of comfort. To attack rather than try to understand.
The difference in all of these moments–in all of these conversations is empathy. And there is no empathy without vulnerability. None of us are the authority on anything. None of us can save everyone. None of us can know everything. Sometimes, we fail. But in the aftermath, it is crucial to try to connect to the weakest among us and figure out how we are all the same. That’s the only thing that will save any of us.
Earlier this week, as I shared on this blog, I hurt myself pretty badly. For no real reason I could identify. It seemed to be the culmination of many small things that just added up to a big thing. I’m not the best at self-care, so I immediately beat myself up for rescheduling an appointment–for all the things I should’ve done–for all the things that made it worse. Because now I was stuck with this injury–this painful, slow-healing annoying thing I have to deal with that’s going to be expensive to fix, that will stop me from doing things I want to do, and on. But the day after it started, I was in severe pain and I’m not dumb enough anymore to ignore such things. So I got my ass to a doctor.
I don’t like urgent care facilities. My emergency surgery was probably necessary because an urgent care doctor misdiagnosed me. And I was in a lot of pain for a lot longer than anyone should have to be because of it. I tell friends to only go to urgent care if they can’t afford the ER and it’s the most minor thing ever. I didn’t follow my own advice.
I didn’t go to the ER because I didn’t want to pay a $350 co-pay. I didn’t want to see my dr because she was across town and likely booked up. And she doesn’t have machines or prescribe pain killers per her practice policy. I didn’t think it was a major thing. A pinched nerve, possibly. A pulled muscle. I mostly just wanted to verify it wasn’t a blood clot or a broken something or other or something requiring surgery. I was also in major pain so I wanted relief. Drugs (even prescription strength ibuprofen was fine by me), manipulation–goddamn something. So, urgent care made sense. It was down the street.
When you’re in pain, and walking on a limb that doesn’t function without screaming at you, few things matter to you as much as getting off that damn limb. So, the first thing I noticed about this facility was that the check-in booth was on the other side of a very big room–so I had to walk a lot. This immediately sent the message to me that this was going to be a long, even more painful exercise in healing than I anticipated. I was pleasantly surprised when the receptionist immediately told me to sit down and she’d come to me and asked if I wanted a wheelchair when they called me.
She got it. The tears in my eyes maybe clued her in–but unlike other places I’ve been–she didn’t force me to do more to add to my pain. I immediately appreciated her. She saw me. It calmed me down. When I went in for the exam, the med tech was equally awesome–telling me not to worry about getting up on the exam table. Bringing something for me to elevate my leg. She was awesome. And then I waited. A very long time. For the doctor. I heard him see the guy who came in after me–who wanted an STD test. Clearly, he prioritized his care over mine for whatever reason. Maybe because my thing was complex. Maybe because his thing was quick. I dunno. But I was clearly the one in excruciating pain. This did not give me confidence in him. Waiting more than 40 minutes to be seen when my pain was a 10/10 was not okay. Especially when there was just that guy and me.
When you’re in pain, when people disrespect you or mistreat you–it pisses you off. With me, it makes me a fighter. I speak up. I bit my tongue though–denied that part of me that wanted to say, “WTF are you doing? Give me something to stop the throbbing pain in my leg.” I wanted to walk out and go to the ER. Where I would be taken seriously.
When he finally showed up, his first words were that I should have gone to my primary care physician because she knows me. I explained why I didn’t. Who really starts a conversation like that about someone’s excruciating pain?
Then, he made me walk. Not a little bit. A lot. When I told him I couldn’t do something, he didn’t believe me. Actually questioning me out loud. I’d try because I’m a stubborn bitch and then curse him under my breath. Then he squeezed my hips till I cried. After that, he told me I had to climb on this table five feet off the ground to be examined. I’m 5’4″. I already had told him I couldn’t lift my right leg at all. But I tried–and failed. Eventually, he found a stool I was able to get on–and then he helped me move my leg–after I couldn’t get it on the table without crying. The table was clearly not meant for anyone who was injured or sick. And neither was his demeanor. The entire time, he made me feel as though this injury was my fault or that it wasn’t as bad as I was saying it was. (FYI–I am not someone who cries or asks for help. I am stoic as all get out when it comes to injuries–so this made me angry).
He then moved my leg around till I cried more. And then he said I either needed an xray or an ultrasound. He asked if I was short of breath, had any weird swelling or bumps, or if I had a hernia. I know what a hernia is–so I said no–I didn’t think it was a hernia. But what kind of dr asks a patient that? Not a good one. Because most patients don’t know what hernias are.
He left. Twenty minutes later, a nice woman comes in with a wheelchair and takes me to an x-ray room. She is amazing and kind–and apologetic. They make x-ray machines that go lower–but this one doesn’t. And I have to climb up on this thing. After that, I have to stretch out the injury and be perfectly still–though I am shaking in pain. She and I somehow accomplish all of this. Had anyone else been helping me, I would have said some expletives. But she got it. So I kept trying. Because she showed up for me.
And then I spent over 90 minutes waiting for him to read my x-rays and tell me what was wrong with me. He finally showed up, only after I said I needed to leave soon (which was true). And finally he had some humanity. Because apparently the labs confirmed that I was–indeed–in motherfucking pain. And that oh–maybe–I needed some relief. So, I got a shot in the butt, a prescription, a lame apology about how long it took, and a referral to a physical therapist.
And even though it had been a mostly miserable time? I thanked him. And meant it. Because he was all by himself that day. And maybe there was shit I didn’t know about. And maybe he was crappy to me, but–in the end–he saw me and met my needs. And I was grateful for that.
Now, you might be saying–why didn’t you send a crappy review when they called the day after? Because I recognized something…he wasn’t the problem. Our healthcare system was. It was built for people who were taller, who weren’t broken, who had lots of money, who had many options, who didn’t actually need things. And he was just reflecting that. And in my pain-ridden state, I might have been making him the villain–because I was noticing all the cracks in the system. And maybe he was having a shitty day. In the end, he was kind and he did the right things.
When my mother was dying, I learned a lot about myself and about her–about the people who cared for her, too. About people, just in general. We’re all doing the best we can. It doesn’t mean it’s enough. It doesn’t mean it’s okay. It doesn’t mean every moment is respectful or full of kindness. Sometimes, we’re all caught up in the noose of bullshit. You can be angry–and believe me–I have been. Or you can recognize what went right. You can focus on being a better person yourself. You can acknowledge your feelings and that things were not what they should have been.
And let them off the hook. Let yourself off the hook. And stop trying to control the damn universe because you couldn’t fix it yourself. You can just let people support you the way they can and recognize that it is what it is sometimes. And as long as you heal, eventually, it’s okay.
Because you’re not lost in a forest writing notes to people who never showed up to save you.