In sickness and in hell

Before you marry, find out if the two of you are compatible when you are ill. It could save you years of anguish.

Topics: Coupling,

In sickness and in hell

Damon and Pythias (not their real names) were the best of friends and closest of roommates before the terrible Great Head Cold Epidemic of 1999 struck them down. Damon was stricken first, and terrible were his sniffles, agonizing was his sore throat. His head ached as if an anvil had fallen on it, and he sensed that pneumonia hovered, waiting to pounce. Pythias came home and learned of Damon’s ailment. “That sucks,” he said. “Want a beer?”

Throughout the course of his illness, Damon barely saw Pythias. Occasionally he’d stick his head in and ask if Damon needed anything, but that was it. Damon recovered in the canonical week to 10 days, but it was a long time before he could forgive the callous behavior of the friend of his youth. In fact, it still rankles. “I could have died in there, and I don’t think he would have noticed until I started to stink,” Damon says. “Sometimes it takes a crisis to find out who your real friends are.”

“Damon,” I say, “you had a cold.”

As recent scientific studies have not bothered to show, there are two very different kinds of sick people. These are the Stoics and the Sharers. Like Damon, Sharers wish, crave, need to share the details of their suffering. They accept and describe it. Your constant attention to their plight is healing. Stoics, on the other hand, reject and deny, yet are enraged by, their suffering, and prefer a certain amount of solitude so they can concentrate on gnawing their paws off to escape from the trap. Your almost invisible respect for their plight is called for. If Stoics are carefully treated, they can often be converted into Sharers, something many people view as progress.

It is absolutely vital that you determine which kind of sick person you are and which kind your loved ones are. Lack of this information can cause loving marriages to fail, houses to catch fire, democratically elected empires to topple.

You may think you know what sort of person you live with, but when people become sick, they often morph into a wholly other being. Thus, many people who are Stoics in daily life become Sharers when they are sick.

Consider the following exchange:

“Would you like some tea?”
“No thanks.”
“I have chamomile.”
“No thanks.”
“What about decaf Lapsang souchong?”
“No thanks.”
“It wouldn’t be any trouble, and I’m making myself a cup anyway. It’ll soothe your poor throat.”

At this point one sort of person will reply languidly, “Well, OK, that would be nice.” Another sort will scream, “Leave me the hell alone!” and embed the alarm clock in the wall.

The Sharer patient has been helped, feeling understood and cared for. He feels pampered when you insist. Loved. The patient can go on.

But the Stoic patient has not been helped, and is in fact infuriated to the point of hysteria. Stoics hate to be urged. They’re barely keeping it together and the obligation to keep repeating “No thanks, really” is more than they can stomach.

The essential point is that the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you is a lousy guideline in the sickroom. I recently urged a friend who was feeling feeble to eat a little something. She agreed to accept a peanut butter and banana sandwich, the only thing she felt she could swallow. I made it with trembling fingers (with extra-chunky, which somehow makes it worse), as a peanut butter and banana sandwich would kill me on the spot. Yet it was apparently the right thing. I am comforted by tapioca, yet other people would rather be beaten to death with a decayed squid than let tapioca pass their lips.

If you live with someone, it’s an excellent idea to find out while he is well and cheerful which type of person he is, since the person may change so unpredictably when ill. Administer the following quiz:

Diagnostic instrument

When I am sick, you should ask how I feel:

    If I cough
    Every five minutes
    Every hour
    Every two hours
    Twice a day
    Once a day
    If my fever gets so high that I function as a bug zapper

When I am sick, I want company.
When I am sick, I hate company.

When I am sick, if I decline an offer, you should:

    Coax me.
    Shut up.

Should I see a doctor when I am sick?

    I am not a good judge of this.
    You decide.
    I am a good judge of this.
    Lay off.

When I am sick, my mental age is ___.

When I am sick, I like to receive (check as many as apply):






      Milk chocolate
      Dark chocolate




    Peanut butter and banana sandwiches

      Smooth chunky


    Blackberry brandy



    Pillow adjustments

    Tender kisses on the brow

    Sexual solicitations

    By now you should know what kind of person you are when sick. (Remember, this may be very different from the way you are when well.) Ideally, you have been able, by cunning or bribery, to induce those you live with to take the quiz also, so you know what kind of patients they make.

    Tragedy can ensue from a mismatch. There is a sequel to the story of Damon and Pythias presented above. Although Pythias claims he never gets sick, this is just his own little urban legend. A month or two after Damon’s harrowing illness, Pythias got the flu. Damon sorrowed for Pythias, wanted to make him feel better and perhaps wished to show by example how a sick person should be treated. The minute Pythias took to his bed, Damon was there with extra pillows, zinc tablets, a hot water bottle, a bed tray and a humidifier. He proffered teas, broths, over-the-counter drugstore remedies, herbal preparations and special glycerin cough drops his mother sent because Damon could never find them anywhere.

    Pythias refused the pillows, rejected the zinc tablets and herbs as quackery and repudiated the humidifier as a torture device because of its barely detectable whir. He snapped at Damon and refused to observe even the most basic health practices. He said the cough drops tasted funny and left them on the floor, where the dog got them. He demanded to be left alone. He said Damon’s bedside manner made him feel like he was playing host to boring guests while being slowly skinned alive.

    Only through careful study of the Stoic-Sharer dichotomy can these frightful situations be remedied. The following tips are intended to show the enlightened middle path, to illuminate the strange behavior of Stoic and Sharer patients, to moderate the excesses of the Sharer nurse and to soften the harshness of the Stoic nurse.

    Tips for the person who’s not sick

    1. Do nice things for the sickie. Wait on him. Sure, he could fix himself a glass of juice — he’s not crippled. But he feels horrible. Bring him the juice. Offer him the juice in the first place, for God’s sake. Offer it once for a Stoic, three times for a Sharer. If he gets plenty of fluids, like the doctor said, maybe he’ll get better sooner, and you can go back to normal life.

    2. Don’t expect results. You have just tucked a sick person into bed, brought him a shallow magazine, made a pot of tea and set the tea by the bed along with cup, teaspoon, napkin, sugar, cream, lemon, sugared wafer and bud vase with orchid and ferns. You have called in sick for him and brought him medicines. You ask how he feels. He replies, “Rotten. I wish I were dead.”

    Doing all the right things for a sick person doesn’t make him better instantly. It probably won’t even make him grateful. That comes later, when he’s well. Remember this: Don’t make patients feel that you’re thinking, “Geez, I’ve been waiting on her hand and foot for an hour and a half, and she’s still sick. Can’t she have the decency to recover?”

    3. Sympathize. The small talk of many sick persons consists of a series of groans and whines interspersed with epigrams like “If I were any sicker I’d be dead” and “They can drop the bomb now, for all I care.”

    This is trying. Rise above it. Say, “Gee, you must feel awful,” “Poor baby” and “What can I do for you?” Remain calm even if he replies, “No one can help me,” “I feel like shit” and “They can drop the bomb now, for all I care.” Wait until he is better. Then make him pay.

    4. Don’t make fun of the sick person. “Wow, if you could see yourself!” “You look like hell!” “I didn’t know anyone could get so blotchy!” Remarks like these seldom go over well. I am not aware of studies showing that such remarks elevate fevers and bring out rashes, but it stands to reason. Again, save it for later and remember that when they say that laughter is the best medicine, they don’t mean laughing at the patient.

    5. Relieve the patient of social responsibilities. For many Stoics the ideal way to deal with a phone call during sickness is to have one’s attendant answer within hearing: “Yes, she’s very sick. I have to say that we’re quite worried. And she’s totally exhausted from working so hard. Yes, liqueur chocolates and marzipan. I’ll tell her.”

    Sharers often prefer to handle the phones themselves: “It’s worse than when Chris got pneumonia … I feel as if my brain will explode … My eyeballs throb and there are spots in front of my ears. What does it mean if you have shooting pains all on one side of your body? … No, much worse than that. I can’t breathe at all — it’s like being in a chemical warehouse fire …”

    6. Don’t mention brain tumors. Just don’t.

    Patients can also benefit from insights derived from exploring the Stoic-Sharer dichotomy. Since you won’t care when you are sick, you should memorize the following right now:

    Tips for patients

    1. If they do nice things for you. Thank them, or they may go away and leave you to die.

    2. If they expect results. Learn one simple phrase and keep repeating it — how hard is that? “I feel a tiny bit better.” “The agony is somewhat abated.” “Death doesn’t seem quite as close now that I have a glass of ice water.”

    3a. If you want sympathy. Link your suffering to their past suffering. “Only now do I realize what agony you must have been in last week when you had this cold. Can you forgive me for not catering to your every whim?” Then you can discuss your own, more contemporary, certainly more acute suffering.

    3b. If you don’t want sympathy. Lie. Claim to have laryngitis. Fake sleep.

    4. If they make fun of you. Get germs on them.

    5. Social responsibility. Don’t accept it if you don’t want it. Refuse to talk on the phone, pleading throat spasms. I’m not a doctor, and I don’t play one on TV, but I can assure you that making small talk seriously damages the health of Stoic patients.

    6. If you suspect you might have a brain tumor. You don’t. Now get some sleep.

    These tips apply to minor illnesses only. If people are in the hospital, visit often and leave immediately. Really sick people often don’t have the sense of humor that appreciates insulting get-well cards. If the hospitalized person is your spouse, marital fidelity is also a nice touch.

    When a sick person recovers, he should heap praise and thanks upon those who nursed him. If he doesn’t, demand it. This is a healthy person now: Bully him all you wish.

    Heed my words and memorize these tips if you ever intend to live with another person, and hope that your life will thereby be made happier, and will not end in a mysterious murder/suicide featuring, as the death weapon, an apparently innocent peanut butter and banana sandwich.

Susan McCarthy is a San Francisco freelance writer and the author, with Jeffrey Masson, of "When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals."

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