The Right To Complain

So there’s a strange thing that happens when you have cancer:  people stop feeling they have the right to complain around you.  Friends will sheepishly and abruptly cut themselves off in the middle of soliloquies about whatever’s not going so well in their lives, usually with an apology of the well-of-course-its-nothing-compared-to-what-you’re-dealing-with variety.  It’s a bit weird; people get a kind of self-conscious, momentarily horrified expression just as they were really about to let ‘er rip about what’s eating them, and then like a health care reform bill in congress, the subject is suddenly dropped, or changed, or otherwise disposed of.

I don’t mean to imply that this only happens when someone’s complaining to a person with cancer.  Who among us (including those of us with cancer) feels that its acceptable to whine and grumble with abandon these days when a cursory glance at the news will tell you how much very worse things could be (whether in Haiti or about 500 other hotspots across the globe.) But the truth is that even in the absence of news-making tragedies, this self-consciousness arises whenever people start to complain around a person with cancer — and I’m of two minds about it. 

On the one hand, everybody has problems, and while I think we can all agree that some are “bigger” than others, each of us feels the weight of our own troubles.  True, we sometimes get wrapped up in them to the extent that we think things are worse than they actually are. It’s easy to focus on things that aren’t going right.  As my Amazing Cancer Shrink likes to point out, the brain is actually designed to focus on the unpleasant stuff (something about survival or whatnot…) It’s natural and legitimate to want to share whatever is weighing on your mind.  Also, as my mom’s best friend used to say, “Once you put it out there it’s not bigger than you.” Sometimes just talking about it makes it feel a little lighter, a little less unwieldy.

On the other hand, let’s face it, some people seem to perversely enjoy getting all hyped up in the drama of their troubles, and talking about it becomes kind of a theatrical exercise. In these situations you’re not a listener or an advisor – you’re an audience.  This, I confess, I have very little time for.  This is when you might catch me rolling my eyes, or puffing out my cheeks – or possibly both, simultaneously, for maximum “I’m barfing on the inside” effect.  Hard to say exactly if it’s the performance or the performer that triggers my response, but whenever I’m in this situation something happens to my theory that everyone has the right to feel the weight of their own problems: it flies out the window, along with my patience and tolerance. I feel… insulted?  Maybe not insulted.  Definitely annoyed.  Definitely of the very strong opinion that such people should immediately get over themselves.  Which is of course the very same judgment that I believe most people fear when talking to someone with cancer — and which prompts most complainers to cut themselves off mid-soliloquy in the first place. 

The thing is, this isn’t just the cancer talking; I’ve always felt this way.  Ask my parents, both of whom have gone through a phase or two when they were perhaps ever so slightly guilty of a little too much drama for my liking.  Ask my friends, most of whom will tell you my love can be sometimes be of the tough (and eye-rolling) variety.  Ask Georgia, who at three-and-a-half has already had several occasions to shout at me that her name is not “Hollywood!”

So, am I saying that the paranoia about having the “right” to complain that some people feel around a person with cancer is justified?  Am I in fact intolerant if I get irritated by a person’s self-pity?  Is it, moreover, a sign of my own self-absorption that I don’t make time for the friend who can’t stop carping on about his nasty boss or the woman who’s every conversation returns to the subject of her inability to find the right guy?

Actually, no. I think I just have a short fuse with drama queens (of either gender.) Always have.  My policy is Ice Queens, Drag Queens, Dairy Queens – ok.  Drama Queens, no.

Because everyone has problems, and I truly don’t mind hearing about them – within reason.  My impatience with the drama doesn’t stem from having cancer, honest.  It’s not because I think I have it worse — if anything it’s just the opposite. I really believe my life is better than most. Yes, better.  In spite of cancer, I genuinely believe my life is a happy one – or happier than the average at any rate, judging from the deafening howl of misery out there.  I feel very much aware of my own good fortune: my happiness in my marriage, friendships, and family relationships alone is a more or less constant reminder of how good I’ve got it.  Let’s not paint too rosy a picture — I am also acutely aware of my own misfortunes — but in the big picture, being surrounded by love and support and amazing, inspiring people, (not to mention being madly in love with your husband) is a pretty good place to net out, day after day.  So, since I’m managing to mostly hold it together over here all I’m saying is, I don’t really want anyone killing my buzz with a song and dance, especially if a talk or a hug can accomplish more.

As for the Drama Queens, you just go ahead and cry yourself a river if you’ve got the blues.  Life is full of troubles and we all have our reasons to be less than just perfectly content every once in a while.  Believe me, I’m not advocating any kind of Stepfordian complacency or stoic WASPy forbearance.  When you feel the weight of your worries, better to share it than to let it crush you.  I’m just saying: if you’re going to hit the stage let me exit the auditorium first, please.  You don’t want me in the audience anyway – I’ll just be throwing you off your show with all my huffing and puffing & eye-rolling, and making of moon-eyes at my husband.



Filed under Living with Breast Cancer

5 responses to “The Right To Complain

  1. Gwen

    I’ll bet you got a triple A+ for the essays you produced in school. You are such a good writer! I love your use of language.

  2. Tannis

    As a survivor I have never complained about having the disease, If you are born with the disease like i was you, accept it and go on living your life to the fullest. My friends have never heard me cdomplain, it is the opposite they always say i have a smile on my face no matter what ups and downs it has brought. You have the right to complain, but do it tastefully and not rudely. I have very little family left from the disease and do not complain about them being taken, because i have them in my heart, and know they loved me the same when they were here. So really you have nothing to complain about if you are still breathing and can get up each morning to live another day.

  3. Scott

    More Dairy Queens, less Drama Queens! I’m pretty much up for anything that means more ice cream!

    I’m also okay with people sharing their problems because I do believe once you put it out there it’s not bigger than you, especially for the big ones. Other people do understand or share many of the same challenges and knowing that you are not alone can be very comforting. I also agree with you that sometimes just saying the problem out loud is helpful.

    The issue I have is when people only focus on their own problems and they complain about those problems over and over again but you don’t hear anything about what they are going to do about it. Or worse still, that they don’t want to try to do anything about it at all, just complain.

    Maybe it’s just a difference between venting and complaining. Venting, you move on, complaining, not as much. I’m good with the venting, not so good with the un-actioned complaining. And when I stray from this path my 7 year old daughter likes to remind me “Daddy, you always tell me not to focus on the problem, focus on the solution”. Perspective comes back into line quickly.

    P.S. I love the “My name is not Hollywood!” line

  4. Leanne

    Well TANNIS I didn’t even know babies could be born with cancer. Basically that should earn you a free Complaint Pass anytime you want it — but since you don’t seem to want it — EVER — can I have it? Just kidding. I am instead awarding you a Bigger Person Card. I’m a little cowed by the Bigger Personess of you, but something happened today inthe chemo ward that also helped illuminate this idea of perspective… Stay tuned. Also I really liked “You have the right to complain, but do it tastefully and not rudely.” I would add: Just because you have a right, it doesn’t mean you have to excercise it!

    And SCOTT — I love the distinction between venting and complaining. There is productive sharing. Even if the product is just a sense of relief, or comfort. Your seven-year-old should be running the country.

    Thank-you as always for weighing in. Lots to consider. I’m not quite done with this topic yet… more to come!!!


  5. maureen in the OC

    I have to admit and this is going to sound bad… before cancer, I was in perfect health. But I had to listen to my mother-in-law on every visit and every phone call about how this hurts and that hurst and honestly, she NEVER said, “I’m doing fine thanks”, it was always some complaint or another. Having cancer and being in chemo has finally given me reprieve from my continually complaining mother-in-law because she now thinks that I’m worse off than her… and honestly, I can live with that!

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