Graceful ways to explain spouse's chronic illness in social situations
May 21, 2014 5:40 AM   Subscribe

I am having some difficulties explaining/trying not to explain my spouse's chronic health condition in social and work situations. I need some stock answers I can give for various occasions.

The longer version is, he has a chronic health condition (kidney disease) that at times affects his energy level, mood and so on. For example, he needs more sleep than most people and recovers much more slowly,from illness, even minor ones. As an example, he can usually solder on through a cold, but I brought home pinkeye once from work, and it was like a plague hit :-)

I am by this point (almost three years together, two living together) much more comfortable at rolling with it and integrating his needs into my life. But I guess I said 'not much, he was sick' one too many times in response to the 'how was your weekend' question because a coworker remarked 'wow, he's sure sick a lot!' And recently, I mentioned I spent the whole weekend doing laundry and had another coworker incredulously remark that he should help me and if he was not feeling well, to 'suck it up.'

I need some graceful outs for these situations. He can't 'suck it up' the way a regular person can. He isn't always up to going out and doing all these things. We usually do get in a brunch out (we enjoy brunches) and dinner or a movie. But often, I spend a chunk of my weekend either doing my own things (reading, going to coffee shops to have a change of scene if I have work stuff to do etc.) or doing household chores which he can't manage. I am happy with my simple life, but most of my coworkers seem to have higher expectations for the weekend than that!

And if I do have a weekend where he's sick, as I did recently...well, all bets are off. I spent a day and a half taking care of him and then another day at the ER with him while he got treated for dehydration. It was a miserable weekend for both of us. And then I came back to work on Monday and just froze when people asked me how my weekend was...

So...graceful outs for these situations appreciated. What do you say about stuff like this?
posted by JoannaC to Human Relations (28 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
People at work don't really care how your weekend was. They are making polite conversation. Just skip this whole thing by making polite, non-responsive answers like "The weather was great wasn't it? What did you get up to?"

Don't share the details of your personal life, whether they are illness or laundry, with your co-workers.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:45 AM on May 21, 2014 [68 favorites]

In work situations, just say "I had a nice relaxing weekend" or "I finished a great book" or "Took care of some things with my spouse" (one thing you might take care of is going to the ER), your coworkers don't need to know every time he is sick.

For friends it's a different story -- you can tell your good friends when your spouse is sick, of course.
posted by jeather at 5:45 AM on May 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

It sounds simple, but can you just say something like, "Actually, he has a chronic illness." I could see myself jokingly saying things like the above but would shut up fast (and probably apologize) if you politely and kindly told me that. You don't need to go into details, and I doubt anyone would push you on them. If they do? "Oh, I don't want to go into details. Anyway, how about that Sports Team?"
posted by whitewall at 5:47 AM on May 21, 2014 [13 favorites]

For the examples you give, I don't think the truth is really necessary - your coworkers are just making small talk and they aren't really trying to critique your life or your relationship and, to be honest, the truth would be a little to "real" in these situations.

If the occasion calls for a truthful explanation (say, people always complaining that your partner cancels a lot because they are sick), then you can just say they have some chronic health conditions and leave it at that.
posted by Think_Long at 5:47 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

In casual situations like this with people who aren't my friends, I wouldn't even bring it up in the first place. How was my weekend? Very relaxing, very low-key, great, wonderful, the end.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 5:47 AM on May 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

I agree that you don't have to tell acquaintances or strangers about your spouse's illness. If anyone you feel comfortable with asks why your spouse is so sick, there really isn't any shame in saying he has a kidney disease and sometimes needs extra time/care. Part of what makes chronic illness difficult is the idea that you have to keep it under wraps.
posted by xingcat at 5:49 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

When you use the word "sick," people imagine something fairly trivial and short-term, like a cold. The phrase "chronic illness" should make it clear to everyone that it's serious. And if it isn't clear to them, maybe spend less time talking to them.
posted by John Cohen at 5:49 AM on May 21, 2014

If you don't want to fake cheerfulness, or wouldn't mind receiving generalized sympathy, but don't want to get into details, you can always say "Ugh, not great, just dealing with some family health issues," and then cut off further inquiries with "Oh, it's a long story, not gonna get into it. But how was your weekend?..." etc. Most people should be able to read two rounds of vagueness/evasion followed by a subject change as code for "leave it alone," I'd think.
posted by Bardolph at 5:50 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

In other words, tell them what you told us. As with many questions about how to explain something well, you've already explained it well in your post.
posted by John Cohen at 5:50 AM on May 21, 2014

If it's work chit chat, you don't have to tell them anything. It's just small talk. 'Had a quiet weekend at home; it was nice' will suffice. Or if you did get out, use those events as talking points 'Finally got out to see Big Blockbuster Movie! It was awesome -- have you seen it?' Or 'Went to this cute little brunch place, but never again -- the service was horrible!' Or if you really do want to tell people about the ER, then 'husband's ok, but I got to spend my evening in the ER with him, and let me tell you, that place was a zoo!' Follow everything up with a question to your conversation partner, and the focus is shifted off you so there's nothing more you have to explain.
posted by cgg at 5:58 AM on May 21, 2014

I tell friends that my husband has a chronic illness. People that continue to make insensitive remarks get a raised eyebrow. For casual acquaintances I do not mention my husband's illness or its impact on my life.
posted by saucysault at 5:59 AM on May 21, 2014 [11 favorites]

With illness you can tell people on a "need to know" basis-- i.e. if it affects something you are doing with them. At that point it is better to let them know it's chronic. A co-worker told me about his partner's chronic illness around the time I noticed he was away on a lot of days, dealing with it. It was a courtesy I appreciated, especially because we are quite friendly, but I don't think he really was obligated to specify.
posted by BibiRose at 6:01 AM on May 21, 2014

How much does your husband share about his CKD with others (coworkers, if he has them; friends) in his own life? That is a factor that matters, too. I am open about my chronic illness as a matter of personal choice so I do not care if and when my boyfriend mentions it to co-workers, many of whom he socializes with. But your husband may be different about this, so you might want to either observe how he discloses or talk to him about it.

I have mixed feelings on this in that in principle I think being friends with coworkers is a terrible idea but in practice my boyfriends coworkers are all cool people and we hang out regularly together. It would be weird for me to just pretend I'm not chronically ill around these people, many of whom I consider to be my own friends. So that also leads my boyfriend to disclose more than he might in a different work environment. You might want to also assess what level of personal information you want to share at work more generally to help guide you in your responses about your personal life at work too.

Being married to someone with CKD is not easy. You might just feel like you want to talk about that stuff with someone even on a superficial level and your coworkers are there and asking about your life and his CKD is a big part of your life. You might want to check out the I Hate Dialysis online forums - they have a place for spouses and it's not just for people on dialysis but is a great site for people who have or love someone who has CKD. That might be another good way to unburden yourself of the pressure and stress of being a caregiver for someone with CKD, even if you just lurk and don't want to post there. It's a very nice community.
posted by sockermom at 6:10 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I agree that with people with whom you have a superficial, small-talk level of friendliness, the best thing is to gloss over and redirect. "Fine, how was yours?" "Oh, busy, but you know how it is. How about that weather?" "We're excited about !BigGame. What are your plans for !BigGame?"

You can also try mentioning only one weekend event, but mentioning it in more detail. So instead of "Oh, not much, read a book, went to brunch, Spouse was sick" change it to "I read $BookTitle and it was great, so suspenseful. Have you read that author yet?" or "We went to brunch at $BrunchPlace, and I tried the grilled grapefruit, and it was terrific! How about you?"

However, it sounds like you have a coworker (or coworkers) like one of mine, who won't take "Fine, thanks, how was yours?" as "leave it alone." If you're dealing with endless questions ("But how was your VACAY?! Did you GO SOMEWHERE?! Did you LOVE IT?!!!")... no. There is nothing that will convince this person to leave you alone.

Once you tell someone like this about your husband's illness, the questions will be even worse -- "So, how was your weekend? Is your husband sick again?" Explaining the situation in more detail will only lead to "OP, how's your husband? Hey, I read an article about Paleo for kidney disease, does he get enough red meat? My friend has diabetes and that's really important for her, I bet it would help him!!" "I heard kidney disease is just diet, does he eat a lot of sugar? He should stop that." "Has he tried vitamins?" (Yes, I have mentioned an ongoing health issue to a nosy officemate and had it backfire like this, how could you tell?)

It's exhausting to constantly gloss over the issues, but it's still easier than weeks of questions and really bad suggestions. (If they already Know It All (tm) about who should do the laundry, how much worse will it be when you give them a real problem to Know It All (tm) about?)

Also, it sounds like you may need a better outlet for talking about this with people who aren't your coworkers and who aren't being asshats. Do you have that? If not, I think it would make it easier for you if you found that. A support group/caregiver community is a good idea, but you could also organize a regular event with friends, join a knitting circle/book group/whatever, etc.
posted by pie ninja at 6:30 AM on May 21, 2014 [16 favorites]

Wow. That's some rude co-workers you've got. I'm so sorry.

Nthing that you lie. Just go with "Fine. [Watched a movie,] [chores,] [you know the usual]. How was yours?" and variations. There are a few people I work with who, when I ask how their weekend was, I really care (because they're friends); with the rest, it's really just social noise.
posted by rtha at 6:32 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My weekend response is pretty much always "I had a pretty quiet weekend, which is my favorite kind of weekend. How about you?" That rarely invokes follow-ups. If it does, I go with something about puttering around in my garden, or watching a movie or going out to dinner - my coworkers do not need to know whether I did those things with or without my partner. People who like to hear/chat about Super! Exciting! Weekends! will decide your simple life is boring and stop asking; everyone else is either happy that you had a nice weekend but unlikely to fish for details, or really just making social nose and again unlikely to fish for details if you answer unexcitingly and deflect to a new topic.

In a few cases where it's necessary to get more detailed, e.g. if the medical stuff is impacting work and some explanation is required, I tend to go with something like "My partner has a chronic medical condition that's not very predictable." People rarely ask for follow-ups on that either and if they do, I stick with some variant of "I don't really feel comfortable talking about his personal medical stuff".

That said, I do have one or two coworkers (and several outside-work friends) that I can talk with openly about my partner's health issues, and that's a big relief and stress valve for me. That's really invaluable and I hope you have that somewhere else in your life.
posted by Stacey at 6:53 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I think your coworkers don't understand the nature of your husband's illness and so they're just saying whatever junk crosses their minds. I'm guilty of it. Don't take too much meaning from it.

If you like, if you're that open, you can tell the office gossip that your hubby has an illness and won't be getting better, and that you really don't want to talk about it. If she/he is a good gossip, they'll tell others tactfully and they'll give you distance on that topic. We have a coworker whose wife is very ill, everyone knows, and we all nod uncomfortably & sort of supportively when it comes up. This works because he's not a mess about it though. You do not want to fall apart at work about this. If you can talk about it simply, then it is just a matter of fact, like if your kid had diabetes or something.

I worked with someone who was totally open and talked about anything like it was no big deal. Because that's how it was for him. For you, this is weighing heavy on you, so I wouldn't recommend bringing it up. People will pick up on your hard time, not know what to do with it, and then feel uncomfortable.

Ultimately they will take take their cues from you. If you want to mention it, do so; if not then just make shit up. "Watched Netflix, watered the garden." You don't owe anyone any information.

FWIW the best out is to ask them about themselves. People lurve talking about themselves and only a few will notice that you never talk about yourself.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 6:56 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

You're breaking social convention by divulging a lot more personal information than is expected when someone asks a simple question like "how was your weekend". Once you go off script, the original questioner is bound to flail and possibly make insensitive remarks. I don't think your co-workers are particularly rude or thoughtless -- they're just not sure how to proceed with your response.

Solution: Keep your response at the same level as the question. Don't mention chronic illnesses or burdensome house chores, etc.
posted by BurntHombre at 7:23 AM on May 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

"What did you do this weekend?"

"Oh, this and that, nothing exciting. How about you?"

Be bland and boring, that's all anyone expects. Maybe practice it on the way to work, since you say you froze and you know that sort of water cooler talk is inevitable.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:24 AM on May 21, 2014

You are not obliged to divulge anything to a co-worker. Regardless of what my weekend has been like, no matter what happened, good or bad, when a co-worker asks me about my weekend I reply, "It was nice. How was yours?" And I have an similar non-answer to, "Any plans for the weekend?" "Probably just the usual, catching up on stuff." Nothing more is necessary.
posted by Dolley at 8:45 AM on May 21, 2014

I agree, for office chit-chat, you can just gloss over it. I do think that if you're friendly with your co-workers, you might want to mention your husband's illness, "I feel so helpless when George's kidney disease flares up. He's so sick and miserable, the least I can do is do the laundry."

Hang in there, I think that being honest, and open about it, without going into gory details, might give your co-workers some context, and you might not feel so judged. Although, how do you feel about pity?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 8:45 AM on May 21, 2014

I have a serious chronic illness and naming it is often met with reactions like people think I am DYING. When I worked at BigCo, instead of naming my illness, I answered truthfully in a way that sounded more low key. For the most part, I did not want my coworkers to know what my diagnosis was. (I had plans to release that info slowly over time, one on one, to avoid the hullaballoo and if I had stayed long enough, it would have become common knowledge without Dramas. Even with that plan, which was generally going well, there were some folks I kind of wish I had not told.)

When asked about my super clean, uncluttered desk, I said "I have allergies and respiratory problems. So I don't like what my mom calls dust collectors."

When asked about my weird eating habits, I said something like "I have blood sugar issues and allergies. I can't eat just anything."

For a question about what I did over the weekend, I would say stuff like "I spent it quietly, relaxing at home." instead of admitting I had been too sick and tired to get showered before 5pm on Saturday, much less go anywhere.

You can tell the truth about all of this stuff and I highly recommend telling the truth. But you can do it in a low key fashion that does not become some bottomless rabbit hole of More Questions. On the one hand, healthy social interaction kind of requires some interest in and compassion for your fellow human. On the other, your coworkers are not owed any deep, meaningful info about your personal life. You are not required to treat them like your BFF.

It can be tricky to find the right balance there and the right framing, but it can be done.
posted by Michele in California at 10:29 AM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: my stock response to nosy people who want to know about my weekend is "just not having to come to work is good enough for me!"
posted by dipolemoment at 10:30 AM on May 21, 2014

In response to "how was your weekend" queries, and in order to avoid disclosing any/all the messy details, my stock answer is "Super! How was yours?" voiced as enthusiastically as possible.
posted by Lynsey at 11:17 AM on May 21, 2014

coworker: "How was your weekend?"
me: "Too short! [subject change]"
posted by mon-ma-tron at 1:54 PM on May 21, 2014

My teammates at work know the score and when my spouse (chronic and likely ultimately terminal pulmonary issues) has had a bad night/weekend/vacation/what-have-you. I trust them and we have a better-than-coworker relationship. Being frank helps them help me manage my day and emotions.

Outside of that circle at work, yeah, banalities aplenty. Just keeping up my side of the polite fiction that everyone is friends with every person they recognize.

Off topic and totally not meant to be condescending in any way: Don't forget to take care of yourself and to be kind to yourself. The caregiver role is actually the harder one to pull off. You have to deal with the illness/disease/condition 24/7 too but you don't get a pass on the daily grind that makes caregiving possible. When it stretches over the course of several years the accretion can be intolerable. Something in the tone of your writing made me thing that you could stand hearing this again.
posted by Fezboy! at 4:05 PM on May 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I have a chronic illness that affects my ability to do stuff. Often, I don't mention it - however, that being said it's good to have a canned spiel at the ready because there will always be situations where for one reason or another the easiest thing to do is mention it.

I find the best way, for me, is a simple statement, and then a redirect.

E.G Other person: "That's a lot of pills, are you okay?"

Me: "Oh, I have an autoimmune disease a bit like Crohn's disease, basically my body thinks I have food poisoning when I don't. If I have to take the pills, and I'm mostly okay."

Other person: "Oh that's a bummer, so can you eat candy corn?"

Me: "Sometimes, but I don't like it that much so no loss. How about [other topic] hey?"

Even though you shouldn't need to tell anyone you don't want to, for me, sometimes it's just the easiest thing, and it helps to have something short to say that a) denotes a certain level of seriousness, b) doesn't invite a lot of further discussion or drama, and c) Lets the conversation move on around it with a minimum fuss.

Most people don't care to talk on about this stuff anyway, it's just something they might file away under context about me, which works great for both of us! Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 4:50 PM on May 21, 2014

There are some people who just don't get 'simple'. My sister and her partner are like this (being five months pregnant and ill is no excuse not to go gallivanting around Vanuatu apparently...) and so I just don't talk holidays or things like that with them. And when they do start in with the 'god you're so lazy' or whatever, I just let it roll off and switch the conversation to something else.

I also use "y'know, the usual thing" as a diversion into the topic change.
posted by geek anachronism at 5:27 PM on May 21, 2014

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