Politics, Religion, Sex (um, and Chronic Illness)

What do you talk about at the dinner table?

I discovered years ago that Europeans don’t generally have issues discussing the three topics we Americans consider taboo: politics, religion, and sex. My friends in Germany would say, “What else is there?” Well, illness for one thing…

Interestingly, a new national survey from a company called Evercare just discovered that “Americans are as unlikely to talk to a friend or loved one about better managing a chronic illness as they are to discuss politics or religion.”Lips_sealed

“Additionally, 56 percent of Americans are more likely to loan friends or loved ones a large amount of money, advise them against taking a job they didn’t think was right (48 percent) and tell them their spouse was unfaithful (41 percent)…” than to discuss ways to better manage long-term illness.

In fact, the title of Evercare’s new report is “Chronic Illness, Chronic Silence.” They talk about “recognizing the need for communications from loved ones to help individuals with chronic illness manage their conditions effectively,” and even offer tips for helping a loved one or friend manage their chronic illness.

Now personally, I’m all for breaking through the spiral of silence, no doubt. I can’t stand the thought that my loved ones or friends might be curious but afraid to ask, or worse, uncomfortable with the very idea of my illness.

But on the other hand, I’m not always in the mood for any kind of meddling. Even when the intentions are good. So maybe it’s not so bad that people are often reluctant to chat about what ails us.

On the other hand, again, what if I were really doing poorly and no one intervened? Not even my closest loved ones and friends? That would be bad news, too.

Some of Evercare’s tips for the “others” are to learn more about the illness itself and explore your loved one’s or friend’s actual goals. This isn’t bad advice, since this is the only way the “others” will ever be able to determine if we’re really in trouble (as opposed to just having a bad day or two).

Maybe it’s our job to raise this “taboo” topic at the right moment when we feel comfortable. So maybe some night at dinner I’ll go for broke and face my husband with: “Hey honey, can you pass the mashed potatoes? Oh, and btw, aren’t you glad to be married to a hot, Jewish, Democratic, person with diabetes? About that diabetes now…?”

[Editor's Note: for another take on this survey check out Scott's Web Log]

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10 Responses

  1. Scott
    Scott October 18, 2007 at 8:03 am | | Reply

    I suspect that the Germans handle these topics differently from the French, the British, the Swedish, the Dutch, Spanish, Greeks and Portuguese! Regardless, as I noted in my blog post on this subject Friday, I was surprised at how high the percentage of people who feel entitled to offer unsolicited advice about a topic many know little about was. Also, most of the respondents to the Evercare survey actually said they would prefer to receive advice about managing a chronic illness from a health care professional (67%), followed by a spouse (10%) or parent (7%), so this would appear to validate the idea that it may not be a great idea to offer unsolicited advice.

    The key is for third-parties to approach the topic without having the attitude of knowing it all, which unfortunately, the masses seem to think they do regarding diabetes even though their knowledge is about 40 years old and has been revised numerous times since. We’re talking empathy here, not being a nosy neighbor!

  2. Dave
    Dave October 18, 2007 at 8:09 am | | Reply

    Thanks for the good laugh!!! Some people are very secretive about their health I would agree. I know someone who is diabetic and doesn’t want anyone to know. Me, I wear my pump in plain site, tubing and all. I invite anyone to talk to me about it or diabetes. I have it and there is nothing that will change that fact. Before I was diabetic I hardly knew anything about the disease. Educating people who would otherwise not know about diabetes is good for the cause.

  3. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth October 18, 2007 at 8:29 am | | Reply

    Amy,
    From one hot, Jewish, Democratic, person with diabetes to another, I totally agree with your article. I know that a lot of my friends and family don’t like discussing my diabetes, nor do they know much about it. I wouldn’t expect them to know… I didn’t know a lot about it until I was diagnosed. But it does seem to be one of the last topics of discussion between us. They would much rather talk about their personal love life than my chronic illness. However, in a heartbeat, they all raised money for our ADA walk and joined me and have been there when I needed them. Maybe its just a comfort thing for them. I don’t look like I have an illness (save for the pump) so why bring it up? I don’t feel the need to discuss it all the time with them, thats why I have a blog and can reach an audience that knows what its like.

  4. Major Bedhead
    Major Bedhead October 18, 2007 at 10:10 am | | Reply

    There’s a huge difference between discussing illnesses and offering unsolicited, erroneous advice. If someone asks me about O’s diabetes management, I tell them about it. If they tell me she should drink Noni juice or go on Atkins and she’ll be cured, I’ll treat them with the derision I think such suggestions deserve.

    I would never presume to tell someone with MS how to treat their symptoms or disease. It boggles my mind that people don’t feel that same constraint when it comes to diabetes. That may be why people are reluctant to discuss that disease. I can’t speak about any others, since neither I nor my family suffer from anything else (thank goodness).

  5. Rosalind Joffe
    Rosalind Joffe October 18, 2007 at 10:34 am | | Reply

    Hey Amy – Not surprisingly, we’re both talking about this report. I wrote about it a few days a few days ago because I had a strong dislike for the report’s message. (http://KeepWorkingGirlfriend.com)

    BTW – You always have the best graphics! And, lotssa’ laughs – how do you do it?

    Well, from one Jewish, very liberal and chronically health challenged female (not sure — can still be hot at 56?) to another, I’d say we might as well all come out of that closet we hide in.

    I think that what’s telling about this study is that the question didn’t seem to focus on talking about it as much as giving advice (34% said they’d feel comfortable giving advice to a person with chronic illness).

    Just like with politics and religion, why bother? NO ONE wants advice anyway unless they’re clearly asking for it.

    But you have to have a very good idea for yourself about what kind of conversation you do and don’t want to engage in. (And, Amy, I have a hunch that you’re pretty good at that – most people arent’).

    That makes it much easier to give the right cue words to let someone who is already pre disposed to being interested in you ask the right kinds of questions. It also makes it easier to shut down unwanted interventions.

    LIKE ALL OF LIFE, you gotta’ have a strategy and a plan. That’s what I work with people to figure out. I’ll be publishing and ebooklet in the next few weeks on Talking about Chronic Illness. Check out the blog (http://KeepWorkingGirlfriend.com for more info.

  6. WC
    WC October 18, 2007 at 10:36 am | | Reply

    I actually find myself discussing it among friends and family more often now, because more and more of them are being diagnosed themselves (all Type II of course). One of my friends who was recently diagnosed with Type II has a cat that was recently diagnosed too, and requires a daily insulin shot.

    I know it’s ridiculous, but it really is starting to feel like this disease is airborne.

  7. Sarah
    Sarah October 18, 2007 at 1:33 pm | | Reply

    *In general* people don’t like to talk about illness, period. Would YOU want to hear about someone drone on about their gallbladder removal?

    Healthy people ae living life carefree in the illness department, and rightfully focus on issues like dating, work, etc. And why shouldn’t they? If I was “healthy” the last thing I would want to think about is chronic illness. I’m not saying to not have compassion, of course, just that most people simply don’t want to hear it.

    This is not only for diabetes. I have Type 1, Hashimoto’s, Celiac, and multiple food allergies.

    When I was at a convention, I needed to have a gluten free and casein free meal (Amy, you can relate I’m sure). I ended up mentioning my food allergies (in addition to Celiac), and how hard it was to eat, and the lady actually excused herself and *RAN* away! Lol! I’m not kidding! I’ve since learned to shut up in public about what’s wrong with you. ;) No one cares, and they’d rather be discussing “important things” like who won American Idol….;)

    While it’s important to educate people about diabetes (Type 1 in particular since the ignorance is astounding), I also agree that the only way is to answer people’s questions and not offer information. Then again, some people never learn.

    I bet a few Type 1 diabetics here have been asked why they haven’t tried the Atkins diet after explaining why they must take insulin to live. ;) Sigh….

  8. Chrissie in Belgium
    Chrissie in Belgium October 19, 2007 at 6:53 am | | Reply

    Really, I am kind of surprised! Maybe things have changed since I left the US! I moved to Sweden in 1970, so I am really out-of-date, but I have always admired the American characteristic of being “out-spoken”! Is that wonderful characteristic disappearing?!

  9. AmyT
    AmyT October 24, 2007 at 9:41 pm | | Reply

    Rosalind,
    You are right of course: it’s very odd to focus solely on giving advice, instead of just “conversing” or “listening,” or just plain being supportive.

  10. Barbara K.
    Barbara K. October 25, 2007 at 12:59 pm | | Reply

    I’m a new reader and think your blog is terrific!

    Another part of this study that grabbed my attention is that twenty percent of respondents said their spouse was the easiest person to give advice to about health. However men have an easier time offering health advice to their spouse (28 percent) than women (19 percent).

    This means that even among committed couples dealing with chronic illness, there’s not a whole lot of talking happening about the topic.

    Why aren’t couples talking about the chronic illness in their lives? Is it denial about the illness? Is it protection of the partner’s feelings? Is it avoidance of one’s own feelings? Is it anger at the sick partner for his/her condition, or at the well partner for his/her health? And let’s not even get into why is it easier for men than for women to speak? Or is it that women are more open to listening?

    I had to blog about this on my own blog which is about couples dealing with illness
    (www.insicknessinhealth.blogspot.com)

    Whatever the reasons, chronic illness is just too hard to carry alone.

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