The Amazing Powers of Words

Over the years, I have been on the receiving end of many comments that I’ve perceived as insensitive or uncaring; I now realize that some of these comments were born out of ignorance and misinformation. I also like to believe that I can find little glimmers of caring and concern in these comments. I admit some are harder to swallow than others.

In the summer of 2002, I found myself in the bathroom, a lot. I knew something wasn’t right and I did my best to deal with it. As the weeks passed, the ripping lower abdominal pain, indescribable fatigue, swollen eyes, and big purple welts on my shins increased. My mouth filled with ulcers that made talking painful. I started walking slow and cautious because I thought I had broken bones in my feet. My coworkers zeroed in on my ‘unexplained’ weight loss. I became aware of the gossip mill speculations: that maybe I had an eating disorder and/or a drug problem. Anonymous ‘do-gooders’ started leaving candy bars on my desk.

1) When I finally received the name of my pain, I shared my diagnosis with my office mates. One of them actually said, “I wish I had Crohn’s, just for a week though, then maybe I could lose some weight too.” Did she really believe that I should feel lucky? Lucky that because of Crohn’s, I could eat anything I wanted and still lose weight?

FACT: It doesn’t work that way; it actually hurt to drink water.

2) When I was put on prednisone and started to gain weight, another coworker told me, “Never lose that much weight again, you looked terrible.”

FACT: I didn’t cause this. I wasn’t dieting. I didn’t do it on purpose.

3) In an attempt to restore some normalcy and enjoy a moment of remission; I eased up on the dietary restrictions I had placed on myself and started bringing raw vegetables in my lunch again. This simple act brought out everyone’s inner judge, jury, and executioner. I heard statements like, “Should you be eating that?”, “Don’t you think those vegetables will rip you up?” and finally, “Maybe that’s why you got Crohn’s in the first place.”

FACT: Diet is not a cause of Crohn’s however, certain foods may be aggravating when the disease is active.

4) Crohn’s disease has preferred my colon as its point of attack. I have yet to have small bowel involvement. And as a result, I have been told, “If you’re gonna have Crohn’s disease, Crohn’s of the colon is the one you want.” Is that supposed to make me feel better; or guilty?

FACT: My experience with Crohn’s is not better or worse than anyone else’s experience; it is different.

5) My favorite, “I thought people with Crohn’s were skinny.” My last Crohn’s flare and round of prednisone left me utterly exhausted, I gradually gained 20 extra pounds.

FACT: No, the prednisone induced weight gain doesn’t ‘just disappear’ when you stop taking the drug.

6) Not everyone with Crohn’s will experience the joint pain. When mine acts up, my lower back is on fire; I cannot find a comfortable position and will vacillate between sitting and standing. Once, someone insisted that I sit. When I said, “No thank you, it hurts to sit.” I was met with a sharp retort, “You’re not the only one with pain!” Wow.

FACT: I am fully aware that someone else ‘has it worse’ than I do. Minimizing my pain will only increase it.

7) Recently, a colleague suggested that maybe I really didn’t have Crohn’s because… wait for it… I don’t look sick.

FACT: While I am not in a flare right now, Crohn’s didn’t ‘go away’; it’s called remission.

I share the previous points, not as a suggestion that we all become IBD experts that would not be realistic. I share in hopes that we can look at a bigger picture and start to cultivate a conscious awareness of the words we use and the actions we take.

It is important to remember that our words have amazing powers. Maybe if before we speak or act, we paused to ask ourselves: “How will my words and actions serve?” we might learn something. Here are a few suggestions for navigating the waters of conversation from one of my favorite books; Dancing with the Ten Thousand Things, by Tom Balles:

Become a Better Listener:
Do your best to listen without thinking what you are going to say in response. Resist the urge to fix, recommend, or suggest. Let your listening shape their speaking.

Ask Open-ended Questions:
Asking, “What’s going on?” will encourage someone to open up more than asking the question, “Are you OK?”

Create Partnership:
Ask your chronically ill friend/coworker for specific ways that you might become a better partner (what helps them laugh, what motivates them in moments of discouragement). Adopt and act on their answer for the sake of the relationship.

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