Family illness has brought me to the hospital a lot over the past two years, and being around sick patients – people who are both physically and mentally vulnerable – has made me quickly realise many things that I often taken for granted.
Being an able-bodied 21-year-old means that I have youth, health and a relatively sharp mind on my side. The consequences of having my capacities taken away from me has never really entered my mind (except once during a horse-ride gone wrong where I, for a few agonising seconds, feared that I had broken my spine after a nasty fall. Being paralysed from the waist down would have put a major spanner in the works…)
As someone that values an active and agile mind, seeing people with dementia is a particularly sobering experience.
One of the characteristics of sick people is that they are vulnerable and in need of help. Patients have doctors and nurses to care for their medical problems, but that is only one of the many dimensions of vulnerability that patients often struggle with. There are numerous other things that can make life at hospital a lot easier, ranging from having company and knowing that someone cares enough to visit (and maybe bringing some flowers or a book), to practical help and support like bringing food and getting picked up after being discharged from hospital. From the time that I’ve spent at the wards, I’ve noticed that while some patients have large groups of family sitting by their side, day in and day out, many others are there alone.
When life is going splendidly, we often get very absorbed in our immediate lives. We pay little attention to most of the people around us, except those that are (often temporarily) in close proximity. We are not great friends to our friends, and not great family members to our families. Success, and being ‘busy with life’ steers us into viewing life with very short-term glasses.
Yet when life takes a turn and the splendid life gets derailed, we are suddenly no longer superman/superwoman – strong, happy, independent – and desperately in need of other people. It’s easy to get lost in the idea that as an individual, you can achieve and have everything that you ever want in life. Yet there are many things that we need but that we, through our own efforts and fortune, cannot obtain:
You can’t make someone care about you. Similarly, you can’t make people like or love you. For a person stuck to a hospital bed, this is probably one of the most frustrating and isolating experiences. Outside the hospital, the fact that you cannot make a person care about you, whatever the context, is also a very painful realisation. When we are vulnerable – whether physically, mentally or emotionally – we really just want someone to care and to know that we matter to someone.
You can’t make someone believe in you. This applies equally to the patient who, despite the informed opinions of her doctor and family, still believes that she can beat the disease, as it does to the person who pursues the lonely dream. Sometimes we just really want someone else to be cheering or rooting for us, but you can’t make someone hold a belief that they don’t genuinely feel. It’s a tough mental journey doing it alone.
You can’t make someone listen to you. People need to be heard, and it’s not just about someone being on the receiving end of a phone call but having someone truly listen and being able to empathise with a situation or experience. Empathy (and sympathy) cannot be forced or manufactured. That feeling of not being heard, or of other people not listening (or understanding) is very powerful in a destructive way.
It’s ironic how life will often bring people full circle. There will probably be many moments in my life where I will be as useless of a human being on my own as a baby. We could be the most powerful, the most wealthy, the most fabulous, but never be invincible and immune from our own vulnerability.
Ian McEwan, Atonement