Just don’t say it, please. Please, I’m begging you don’t let these words come out of your mouth. Yes, I’m talking to myself as much as I’m saying this to you. I’m guilty! I’ve let the words spill out of my mouth in an attempt to help comfort someone else. I’ve said them to myself, hoping it would pull me out of my funk.
Did it work? No, not at all.
Someone will always have it worse than you, you know. I know! I get it. Oh, my breath came out in a quiver as I typed those words. A chill ran up my spine. I think I have a brain freeze. It feels like I just ate a tub of ice cream in one gulp, but it’s November. That would be taboo, not to mention physiologically impossible.
It’s a bothersome collection of letters and words that makes my right eye twitch and my left nostril pucker. A grunting groan makes my larynx tremble. I take a deep breath in, slowly let it out through pursed lips, and shake my head. The retort, the witty response, gets caught in my throat, so I force a smile and walk away.
It’s one of those statements that sounds true, and on the surface it is legit. It certainly appears to carry a degree of wisdom, and I can’t call it a bald-faced lie. Yes, of course, someone will always have it worse. That’s just a fact. There are billions of people on this planet so, somewhere out there, someone will have it worse than you, me, and a cat named Sue.
If it’s true, then why does my heart clench? Why did my whole body deflate? Why, in the presence of so much truth, do I feel sick?
Can I count how many times someone has reminded me that someone is worse off? Nope, it’s more than once and less than, approximately, 2143 times. It was true enough when I was in a hospital bed, hooked up to a wall of machines. It was also true enough when I got my ankle trapped between the peddle and the frame of my bike.
True story, I was 10 or 11 and riding my bike around the neighbourhood. I swerved to avoid a mouse, my back tire slid out, and I landed on the pavement. When I tried to stand the bike came with me. My ankle was stuck, and I have no idea how it happened. Neither did everyone who came to the rescue of a screaming kid.
Seriously, if you heard that scream, you would’ve thought I was being attacked by a rat dressed up as a culturally appropriated warrior. Nope, I was just trapped in an awkward position. I’ve always been a dramatic little weirdo.
It took twenty minutes of creative tugging, angling, and several pleas to spare my bike. It was a great bike! Red, with a strawberry-shaped basket on the handlebars and pink streams. I loved that bike more than my ankle which, for all we knew, might’ve been broken. Thanks to five adults, my bicycle was saved, and I went to the ER for x-rays. It was only a sprain, but even the doctor marvelled at the tight spot I’d found myself in.
In that ER, waiting for my x-rays, one quick glance around the room made it very clear that I wasn’t in a bad way. There were a lot of people in worse shape than yours truly. They had it worse, but with that observational knowledge, would pointing it out help me feel better?
What about you? When your problems are put on the scale, do you feel better?
I can only answer that question for myself because I think we’ll all have a different response. It’s not a trick question. There’s no right or wrong answer. It’s a very individual interpretation or gut response. For me, and this is just my gut response, the answer is no.
Whenever someone has said those words to me, I shut down and go silent. They look at me as if I’m supposed to be relieved. They wait for the moment when I connect the dots, but the lines I’m trying to draw just don’t line up.
It doesn’t trigger a life-changing epiphany or open my eyes to some new-found truth. It’s not a moment when something so blatantly obvious slaps me across the face, and I wake up from a deep sleep. My mind hasn’t exploded, and I haven’t exclaimed, well damn. Or, more accurately, used words that require censoring and a mouth full of soap.
There’s another term for that it, in our modern-day lexicon, coined by the incomparable Ms. Winfrey. It accurately captures that lightning bolt moment, but I can’t bring myself to type the words. One overused saying a week is my limit. For the sake of my sanity and your eyes, let’s put a cap on it.
Why do I have a sinking feeling that statement is going to bite me in the butt later? I think I’m going to lose a quarter of a cheek at some point.
For me, the old cliche sounds good but feels wrong. The wires connecting the head and the heart have overextended their capacity. The fuse has blown. The connection can’t be completed. It’s a classic case of logic versus emotion, but why does it feel so wrong?
Brace yourself, I’m about to sound pitifully self-indulgent. I’ve spent the majority of my life in and out of the hospital. I was diagnosed with chronic renal failure when I was three years old. I’ve had countless surgeries, an endless list of procedures, and a few experiences with death. Life has shown me the worst it has to offer, but life has a way of doubling down.
A few years ago, I had a surgery that didn’t go to plan. I have an implanted cardiac defibrillator (ICD), and the device I was using had been recalled by the manufacturer. Apparently, it had a gnarly glitch, and you don’t want a device attached to your heart malfunctioning.
The ICD keeps my heart beating at in normal rhythm. My heart goes too slow, and then it races around like someone set its pants on fire. This little device in my chest speeds up my heart when it goes too slow and gives it a swift kick in the scorched bloomers if it starts running too fast.
Yay science! But oh no, an ICD is not something that should have a glitch and misfire. It’s an essential service! It keeps my heart ticking in a semi-regular fashion, which I appreciate.
If only a medical recall worked like a rice cooker recall. I could go back to my local Walmart, exchange it for one that won’t explode and pick up some ice cream. So easy and productive. A two for one deal on ice cream? Sold.
Unfortunately, there’s only one way to exchange an implanted medical device, and it involves anesthesia, a knife, and a lot of smart people with very steady hands. Even with brilliant and talented people, things go wrong, and I’m just lucky like that. The surgery was supposed to take four hours, but it ended up going for nine hours and some change.
Obviously, we’re having this conversation so, it worked out in the end, but it was a bumpy ride. I spent some time hooked up to a ventilator, a machine that breathes for you, in the ICU until my body could take back control. My chest, neck, and face were swollen. I was sore all over, and every time I moved, I felt a stabbing pain in my chest.
Still, when I looked around in the intensive care unit, there were people in worse shape, and there was one who took their last breath in that room. As bad as I felt, I kept reminding myself that I could be in a lot worse shape. I could be any one of those people, in that room, who had it worse than I did. I could be the person who left with a sheet draped over their face.
It’s not just a platitude we say to someone going through a tough time. It’s something we have been programmed to say to ourselves. At least, I say it to myself all the time because I hope it will take the edge off. Someone has it worse. You could be that guy over there, yikes. Your not that bad so, relax and quit complaining.
Just because something is true; doesn’t make it right. This statement silences a voice that’s reaching out in a moment of pain. I don’t know about you, but the hardest thing for me to do is ask for help or talking about what I’m going through. It takes no small amount of courage to say those words out loud.
Opening up, and then being told my problems are small in comparison? How do I respond to that? How do I tell you what I’m feeling? How do I trust someone with my heart after being told my heart doesn’t compare to others?
The comparison is unfair, and it doesn’t equate. One pain isn’t more valid than another. My story isn’t more important than yours because I have more scars. If you’ve struggled, felt pain, lost your breath because life is so hard? You have ownership of that, and you can share that story without comparison or judgement of worth.
To a certain degree, validity isn’t achieved by the depth of suffering but by the survival of it. You went through something horrible, and you’re still breathing. We’re all going through something right now, and it sucks, but we’re in it together. There is a power and a community formed in these moments of shared struggles and pain. It builds us up, and brings us together.
We can’t hide what we’re going through because someone has it worse. Let’s stop comparing our suffering. All we’re doing is invalidating their experiences. We’re invalidating our own experiences. We’re perpetuating a cycle of loneliness and silence that only makes life more difficult. Life is hard enough! Can we try to make it easier for each other?
On the rare occasion that I’ve cracked open my vault and shared my pain, the best response has been the person who sat with me and listened. They didn’t try to fix it. They didn’t try to make me feel better. They didn’t put my story on a scale. They sat with me, in that moment, and listened. When they spoke, they said the kindest words anyone can ever say. I’m here for you.
When you don’t know what to say, say that. I’m here for you.