Authors: Maeve Binchy
For dear Gordon, and all the other
good people who made me better
For Freida and Eileen - there’s only
one of each
This is a ‘Cheer up’ book. Not ‘Cheer up, it may never happen’ … because to some extent it has happened. You’re not well. Not ‘Cheer up because there are people much worse off’. That is a ludicrous piece of advice. Are we seriously meant to feel better when told someone else is in bad shape? Not ‘Cheer up because the rest of us are sick of looking at your misery-ridden face and you’re actually depressing everyone in a radius of five kilometres’.
It’s really a sort of survival manual: some nanny-ish advice about how to muddle through a time of aches and pains. There’s also a slight touch of the head girl mentality in it, I think. And though neither Wendy Shea nor I were ever head girl material, we have each long had this feeling that we could run the universe quite adequately if asked to in a polite tone of voice.
Not that either of us is a very good role model for anyone with aches and pains. There was an awful lot of grizzling and anxious whingeing as we both packed our suitcases and went off, hearts pounding, to different hospitals to get hip replacements. No medals for bravery were pinned to either of our nighties during our stay in hospital.
But on the other hand, things weren’t nearly as bad as we thought they would be. You can get used to anything after a while, and I am still automatically offering my arm every time I see anyone in uniform, expecting to have it wrapped up while blood pressure is taken or stuck with needles while blood is injected or removed. I’ve offered my arm to air stewardesses and cinema ushers and security guards in a kind of reflex reaction, but so far none of them has taken me up on it.
I was very interested in other people in hospital, and had amazing conversations in the corridors with total strangers as I limped around with them. Together we would study the hip manual and note that sexual intercourse could be attempted after so many weeks, which was a good topic of conversation at the water cooler. The hip manual also said that after eight weeks we should be able to drive.
‘That’s great,’ one man said wistfully. ‘I always wanted to know how to drive but I never had time to learn, it will be a huge advantage to me.’
Wendy and I both met, in our separate hospitals, fellow patients who were optimistic, cheerful and interested in others. We also met people with weaselish bad tempers who were driving their families insane, and gloomboots who thought no medication was working and suspected incipient clots in every part of their body. We met those frightened that they wouldn’t get cured and get back to work, and those who were already malingering and plotting scams to stay out longer.
We learned awful things about healthy eating plans, and good posture and the amount of exercise that normal people are meant to take.
And Wendy and I both got a whole new lease of life from the new legs, and wanted, as a thank-you, to try to raise some funds to support the good work of the Arthritis Research Campaign, which you are helping to do by buying this book.
But we also wanted to pass on the wisdom that the cheerful survive somehow better and help themselves as well as everyone else along the way. The wallowing in other people’s sympathy doesn’t do all that much to make you feel better. How many times do you want anyone to say ‘How terrible it must be for you’?
Everyone is different, and of course there are people for whom the ultra-sympathetic tones and hours of listening to their ailments are what will make them better. Speaking personally, I’d be afraid to risk it.
It’s not that I wasn’t grateful for sympathy during two years of great pain and much disablement before the operation. I suppose I’m afraid the sympathy fuse is short and can be tried to breaking point, so I allowed myself to indulge in it very sparingly. I said I was fine when I was terrible, and I was much better when I was much worse, and I was full of hope when I was glum with despair.
It worked so well that some people said there was nothing at all wrong with me, except that I seemed for some reason to be bent double, walking on two
sticks, yelping a bit and unable to climb three steps. Others, who knew there was quite a bit more to it, realised that this was the way I wanted to play it and went along with it. So not only did I see good humour and optimism reflected in the faces I looked at, which was immensely cheering, but the approach worked when I was alone. I had said so often that I was great I almost believed it myself. And on the odd day when I really did need the shoulder to wail on I felt I could ask for it because it wasn’t already sodden with the damp of a thousand wails.
I admit that after the operation, I didn’t want people to be brisk and dismissive either, saying ‘Nonsense, there’s nothing to it’, when they stood there on their two good legs and I had a contraption tied to me to make sure I didn’t lie on my side by accident. I didn’t want them to minimise it, and say that everyone, including the dogs in the street, were having these joint replacements all the time these days.
And I certainly didn’t like being offered the healing power of crystals, the address of a seventh son of a seventh son, a pounded mixture of herbs to apply to the afflicted part, a copper anklet or a mantra never known to fail.
I want then?
I suppose like anyone I wanted to be treated with concern and affection, but most of all to be treated as if things were normal, as they had once been, and would be again not so very far in the future.
If that’s what you want, how do you get people to
treat you like that? The good news is that it’s the invalid who calls the shots. All we have to do if we want to avoid sepulchral sympathy, remorseless heartiness or off-the-wall cures – whichever is most maddening – is to send out the right vibes.
I’m not at all suggesting we ignore symptoms, refuse treatment and abandon everything that modern medicine can do for us. Absolutely the contrary. We should seek advice early and then take it. We should rejoice that we live after rather than during the days of leeches and bleedings and dosing with unmentionable things. If ever there was a reason not to mourn the passing of the good old days, it would be in terms of health.
Nor is this book about putting on a show for the visitor. It’s about coming to terms with the fact that our bodies are not invincible after all; realising that we are not toddlers who have fallen over and will get up ten seconds later to waddle on.
It’s only human to be anxious and doubtful and sometimes just outraged that parts of us aren’t working properly. We vow that if only this pain or that ache would go then we will never complain again. We spend futile hours looking back on a misspent life and blaming ourselves for whatever has befallen us.
This is natural. There’s really no such thing as a naturally good patient. Who is able to be genuinely good-tempered through wheezes and snuffles and fractures and labour pains and attacks of nausea? But eventually, we probably learn to be slightly better
patients than we feel like being. Partly for social survival, but partly for sheer self-preservation, we learn to cheer up.
I hope that there is something in this book that will cheer you up. Not too boisterously, as if a manic face were two inches from yours saying menacingly, ‘You will be good-humoured or else’. I have met too many professional Pollyannas in my life to think that good humour can be imposed on people successfully.
And I hope nothing in this book will suggest that it was written and illustrated by two people with a huge history of courage and stoicism. In fact, the next time either of us are poorly, we may well have to consult ourselves here to recall why we were so over-confident as to produce a manual advising all around us on attitude and behaviour.
But it is written with great sympathy, a fairly light heart and a genuine belief that nothing is quite as bad as it seems at four o’clock in the morning.