Letting people down. God, I hate it. The shame, the broken promises, it’s awful. Unfortunately, one of the worst aspects of dealing with chronic illness is that every now and then, no matter how many pills you take or how much you plan in advance, you are going to let people down. It’s inevitable, it’s awkward, and it’s part and parcel of living with autoimmune disease.
Of course, I’m mentioning this now because I let someone down at the last minute recently, and it still smarts. My immune system apparently decided that the day before I had an engagement was the day it was going to simply open up it’s gates and let every Tom, Dick, and Germ waltz right on through, like a TSA agent on their first day. Or second. Or hundredth. The bug ultimately kept me bed-ridden for almost 48 hours and needless to say I missed the engagement that I had promised to attend.
Now, I’m sure the first thing you are going to say is that anyone who knows you should also know you have a disease, and that autoimmune illness is unpredictable. Sure, that’s a valid point, but guess what – spoiler alert – people are only human! No matter how legitimate your reason may be, whoever you have let down is going to feel, well, let down. Sure, they may never say it to your face, and they may tell you that everything is fine and not to worry about it, but look at it like this. How would you feel if you asked a friend to, say, take pictures of your son or daughter on their first birthday, and then that person called you the morning of to cancel because of a death in the family. Now, sure, most of the grey matter up in that head of yours knows it’s wrong to be angry for something outside of that person’s control, but if you are being honest, there’s always that little voice grumbling in the back of your head. You know the one I mean – it’s the voice that says, “well, that’s messed up isn’t it? How rude of that person to die unexpectedly. Now I’m screwed, it’s not like my kid has another first birthday.” You know it’s true. So, no matter what, there is going to be some awkwardness, and that’s when the person you are dealing with is a caring, understanding, close friend. I can’t even imagine how much worse it would be to cancel on some casual acquaintance that doesn’t have any loyalty. That person may just show up at your house with a bad attitude and a Louisville Slugger.
Although I could blame it all on happenstance, truthfully, I have to assume some of the responsibility. If I didn’t try to do so much, I wouldn’t have to let people down every now and then. I cannot tell you how many times someone has told me “you do too much.” From what I’ve been able to gather, though, this seems to be a common thing among those who have autoimmune disease. Personally, I know I always push myself to try and behave just like a “normal” individual, and that usually means overcompensating. I suppose I feel that its necessary to do more than an analogous “healthy person” would because of the need to drive home the point to others, and especially to myself, that I can still keep up with any mortal man if I really put my mind to it. Sure, I know I’ll pay a huge price later that night or the next day, but in my eyes the alternative isn’t an option. I don’t want to have to admit to myself that there’s something I can’t do by myself, and it scares me when I find an immovable object that meets my unstoppable force, and it’s not enough – no matter how unstoppable my force is. Now, I know you’re saying, “everyone needs help now and then, no man is an island, who are you and why are you touching me,” etc., but that’s of small comfort. Anyone with chronic illness can tell you that asking for help feels about the same as pretending to be a girl to get onto a lifeboat – sure, it gets you there, but you feel dirty. Oh, so, so, dirty. For me personally it means I’ve failed – both physically and intellectually. Even if I can’t use my meager amount of brute strength to finish a task, I should still be able to finish using some fiendish plan cooked up in my crazy brain. Failure is not an option.
Now, I know this is going to sound a touch sexist, and I apologize in advance for it. Being a male and having a disease that limits your physical strength and mobility is different, and dare I say, worse (in some aspects) than if I were female. Now, all my women readers, please, before you finish the email you are no doubt penning as we speak that eviscerates me for using such an outmoded ideal, understand that I’m not saying men with chronic illness have it worse than women – not in the least. I cannot imagine what it must be like to endure the uniquely female trials of this world while also dealing with the pain and awkwardness of autoimmune disease. All I am saying is that when speaking about this one particular facet of the disease – physical weakness – society has a much dimmer view of a man without strength than women who are without. It’s true, and it’s something I’ve always been acutely aware of. Despite all of our best efforts, men are still called upon to do the heavy lifting and perform the spider-killing as a knee-jerk reaction. If you are honest with yourself you’ll admit it’s true. Yes, it’s wrong, and yes, we immediately right the ship of thought so as not to act on offensive stereotypes – but it’s there, and I think most of you know what I’m talking about. As a male with chronic illness, dealing with this stereotype can cause feelings of inadequacy, to say the least, and it just adds to the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment when I absolutely have to let someone down because I wasn’t able to bite the bullet and “power through” whatever my illness threw at me that day.
Shirking an obligation or passing off a responsibility is bad enough, but when you have to bail on a job you campaigned for or volunteered to do, the humiliation is magnified tenfold. I will gladly, without hesitation, trade spending a day or two in bed in excruciating pain for not fulfilling a promise I made to someone. Unfortunately, there are worse symptoms than pain, and there is no “powering through” nausea or dizziness. I can only hope that I am one day forgiven, and if not, find a way to accept that there will be a few times when I am just going to have to acknowledge the loss of a friend or the destruction of trust. It’s just another reason why autoimmune illness, a disease with no end, no beginning, and a nebulous shape, is so difficult to live and sympathize with not only for those of us who suffer, but for the people that we meet as well.