Cancer and narcissism: when good people rank their suffering

Cancer and narcissism: when good people rank their suffering
(Illustration by Wes Bausmith…) This image appeared in the Los Angeles Times and accompanied the article, "How not to say the wrong thing."

From snarky comments on Facebook in response to people whose pets have died to my online support group’s recent tussle over whether or not bladder cancer was a “good” cancer, I’ve realized that we sometimes succumb to the desire to hold up our own grief or suffering as the exemplar of all grief.

Believe me, I’ve succumbed. Last year when I was in treatment for bladder cancer, “I have cancer” was on the tip of my tongue when I heard people at work complaining about the design of their new offices. Thankfully, I resisted.

Should they have been complaining about such a trivial thing? Probably not. Emphasis on “new” office. Is complaining about trivial things human, even normal? Yes, it is. I suspect complaining about our offices is symptomatic of overall dissatisfaction with our jobs, or life.

As a college teacher, I hear a lot about the narcissism of millennials, a mental illness supposedly rampant in this generation and spurred by Facebook and other social media. As a member of the 1970s “Me” generation, I’m confident that “narcissism” is developmental, part of the identity work of our late teens and twenties made more visible by social media.

When we struggle with identity, we all lean toward narcissism to some degree or another. I think crisis, loss, illness, and change usually invite us to struggle with our identities. Who am I? A cancer survivor? A thriver? Is “having cancer” going to be a corner stone of my identity?

When we lose someone we love, whether a dog or a mother, part of us dies along with that someone. These relationships make up our identities. When they are taken from us we struggle to go on, missing a piece of who we are.

For me, having and being treated for cancer has been one of the most self-involved and narcissistic moments of my life. Every day, for a while, took place inside my own head, a desperate meditation about mortality and my place in the world. My entire world seemed to be only 5’2 1/2” tall. The measure of all things was my suffering and my grief. Cancer and narcissism seemed to go together.

You have a headache? Well, I have treatment today and will be in pretty intense pain for 12 hours because of cancer, which, by the way, could kill me. Just sayin’

Translation: You have no idea what real suffering is like.

It’s was a miserable place to be, both for me and the people around me. I will be eternally thankful for my friends and family for bearing my narcissism with such grace and compassion.

It has been wonderful to crawl out of my own head into a world where I am capable of caring about other people.

One of my strongest memories about my mom’s death was the dance of grief my grandmother and father locked themselves into. She had lost a child and he a wife and it became a zero sum game for them. Who had suffered the biggest loss? In the face of losing my daughter, the loss of your wife is nothing.

Of course my mom’s son and daughter were left to consider whether or not to cut in on the dance, being motherless in their 30s. We had all suffered a profound loss.

I was astounded when a friend of the family told me, at my mom’s funeral, that nothing is worse than losing a child. It’s probably true that no loss is greater, but for me in that moment, nothing was worse than losing my mom.

This is the thing about loss and grief. When it’s happening to us it can be all-encompassing. It is easy for me, more than twenty years later, to imagine that the loss of a child, even an adult child, is the worst possible loss, especially since I have a daughter.

It is still hard, though, to remember how many people failed to acknowledge the grief my brother and I suffered, no less profound because of my grandmother’s and father’s grief.

A friend of mine posted on Facebook the image above from the Los Angeles Times. It accompanies an article, "How not to say the wrong thing," which gives advice about how to talk to people about illness.When we speak to those who are hurting, the rule is comfort in. When we speak about our own suffering or concerns it’s dump out.

The advice is the best I've read since being diagnosed with cancer. And, I have to note that the people who've said the most hurtful things to me, whether about grief or about cancer, were those also suffering from grief and cancer. Just because you're ill, just because you're suffering, doesn't mean that you get to "dump in" on another human being. (See my advice for talking about cancer here.)

If I think my cancer is worse than my neighbor's diabetes, I need to save that insight for a friend not affected by either. Instead of dumping on my neighbor, I should comfort her.

I owe compassion to my community and to my family. I need to acknowledge their pain and their struggles without measuring it against my own.

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