We Often Hurt the Ones We Love. Even the Ones We Don’t Love. So Why Do We Do That, Anyway?

Online today I read an interesting statement.  “When someone tells you they are going to be brutally honest, “ it was observed, “they usually mean they are going to be more brutal than honest.”  It was a timely remark, as I have recently been on the receiving end of just such a verbal mugging.

Days before I was scheduled to have a malignant tumor removed from my left breast, I received an e-mail from someone I loved and trusted implicitly.  It had been a while since I had heard from them, but I hadn’t really given it much thought.  It never occurred to me that something was wrong, I just figured they were busy.  Then I discovered accidently that this person was upset because I hadn’t called them after they had some minor surgery.   When I learned this, I sent an e-mail to apologize.  I tried to explain what had been going on in my head and I asked, affectionately, if we could put this behind us and move on.  Under ordinary circumstances, I told them, of course I would have called.  But the circumstances hadn’t been ordinary.  I had just discovered I had cancer and I was out of my mind with fear.  One of the worst aspects of chronic and/or serious illness, I have found, is how it can take over your life.  While you are acutely ill, it is easy to become very self-centered.  I had multiple sclerosis, lymphedema that had crippled my legs, a gall bladder abscess, which left me with a drain coming out of my abdomen and, now, breast cancer.   I can no longer drive or walk more than a few steps.  I am in constant, debilitating pain.   My career and financial security have gone up in smoke.  With all this swirling around me, I was consumed with anxiety and depression.  So this person’s surgery, relatively minor but, of course, important to them, just did not register on my radar screen.

I am ashamed and embarrassed to be so self-absorbed, but my friends have expressed their understanding and have been supportive and patient with my preoccupation.  They know this isn’t my usual nature and they are helping me ride it out as I find my way through this health nightmare.  Unfortunately, unbeknownst to me, this one person had no such empathy and had been nurturing a horde of grievances for months.  They were just being eaten alive by their growing anger.  So they decided this was the perfect time to let me have it.  In response to my conciliatory e-mail, under the guise of ‘being honest’, their devastating reply contained a list, with dates, of my many, many, many faults and failings, going back over a year.  This was written with such venom and bitterness I was literally left breathless.  I was horrified by my perceived crimes, which included my selfishness, my hygiene, my weight, my housekeeping, my decision making, my life choices and my parenting.  I was even faulted for having cancer. 

I was stunned by the malice.  And grieved that I had been so out of touch that I had no idea this person had harbored such a consuming rage.   Unaware, I had readily trusted them with my most private thoughts, welcomed them into my home, believed we were the closest of friends.  Yet all the while they were seething with resentment, blame and judgment that gradually escalated into a frenzy of 1600 furious, wounding words.  Nowhere in the message did they mention having any sympathy for me, there was only blame for how my misfortune angered and embarrassed them.  My friends all offer, constantly, to help me with shopping, cleaning, laundry, or just keeping me company.  And they do all these things for me cheerfully and generously.  But another notable omission from the e-mail was any indication of a desire to assist me in any way, except by telling me what to do and what I had done wrong.  It actually had been like that for years.  But because I loved this person, I had chosen to turn a blind eye to that.  Now, in the face of this brutal verbal attack, I realized how blind I truly had been.

Almost immediately, the shock and hurt of this censure set off a myriad of MS symptoms, which happens when I am particularly stressed.  A course of IV steroids is what helps a bad MS relapse, but as I was heading into surgery, this was out of the question.   I realized I had to deal with the situation with compassion yet as much distance as possible.  I was devastated that I had upset this person so much and, just as bad, had been so clueless about it.   I sent a brief email in response.  I did not even attempt to defend myself against the accusations, which were a ranting mix of exaggerations, unreasonable expectations and flat out fabrications.    Here I was at one of the lowest points of my life and this person chose to make sure I knew they thought I was a gross, unsanitary, obese, selfish, slatternly embarrassment.   I knew it would be pointless to initiate a debate and defensiveness was not what I wanted to communicate anyway.  I wanted to express my shock and sadness at having been so out of touch.   I couldn’t hide my distress at this terrible battering by someone who purported to love me.  I ended my message by telling the person I would pray for them.  I was praying that they would receive some relief from the incredible anger they were holding.  But I added, to my sorrow, please do not contact me again, as their malicious words were simply too hard for me to move past in the foreseeable future.

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