New friend who is obsessed with her health issue
August 28, 2016 7:28 AM   Subscribe

New friend is obsessed with her rare health issue. I need to set some boundaries for discussions around this. Special snowflake details below :)

I have recently befriended a young adult cousin of my husband---she has been in a graduate program and so is often free during the day, and I have been off work for the summer, so we have met for coffee a few times. We are both the type of person who has aspired to have more of a social life and found that difficult for various reasons, so even though we have some small differences in age, entertainment tastes and so on, I have persevered and generally enjoy having someone I can call when I want company, even if they are not my best BFF in the world.

The only real issue has been that she has a chronic health condition and she is obsessed with it. It's something in the same family as fibromyalgia, although it is not that specifically. And she is obsessive about it. She thinks every setback she has in life (job or school issues, etc) is a direct consequence of this and so is very engaged in 'activism' and such things around the topic. She also believes that this illness has a genetic origin, and that my husband's family is in denial about this.

It's this last part I'm struggling with a little. Several times, in discussion of her own symptoms, she has mentioned that whatever it is is something I should 'be on the lookout for' regarding my own child. I have found pregnancy to be anxiety-filled enough already without adding that kind of paranoia into the mix, for one thing. And additionally, many of the 'symptoms' she describes are quite nebulous. Like, having good coordination and flexibility could be a 'warning sign' about this illness. Or, it could just be that someone has good coordination and flexibility. Or having unexplained rashes---could be her special illness, or it could be the eczema trait which is very strong in my family. Or it could be a contact reaction to a bug or a plant or a new brand of laundry soap.

So, I'm not sure how to negotiate conversation around this. I will entertain a certain amount of venting about her own stuff, as part of being a supportive friend, but I would really rather not bring the baby into this. How should I respond to this the next time it comes up?
posted by JoannaC to Human Relations (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
You could say "Please don't discuss scary things that could potentially happen to my child, I worry about him/her enough as it is."

People with illnesses tend to discuss it, it's a part of them that occupies a significant portion of their thoughts and lives. Conversation-wise it should be treated as a involved hobby, something that comes up in every conversation but shouldn't drag on for too long.
posted by FallowKing at 7:45 AM on August 28, 2016 [23 favorites]

Are you interested in genetic counseling? It may reassure you with regard to your own child's chances of getting this disease, and would give you concrete information to provide to your cousin next time she makes comments about your unborn baby. I had it with my kids and found it reassuring with regard to a disease that both of my grandfather's siblings died from in childhood (both parents would have to have the recessive gene for my kids to be at risk).

If you're not interested in genetic counseling, then next time she brings it up, just say, "Hey, I'm stressed enough right now without you adding worries, can we not talk about my baby getting your disease?"
posted by amro at 7:48 AM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

"I can only imagine how hard it is to live with [chronic illness] and I'm so glad you're doing so well with all the challenges you're facing. I also respect how much you're doing to help others, making them aware and encouraging they get testing and treatment. I will always be glad to listen to your current health issues and activism work but I do not want to discuss any speculation about my son anymore. You've done a good job making us aware and you know you'd be the first person we'd go to as soon as we notice anything of concern. Thank you!"

Hopefully, she'll get the point and not need more than one or two gentle reminders. If she still doesn't respect your boundary at that point, I'd then look into distancing yourself.
posted by smorgasbord at 8:15 AM on August 28, 2016 [14 favorites]

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing based on your description she has Ehlers-Danlos syndrome?
If so, it *does* usually have a genetic component.

That said, if her disease (like Ehlers-Danlos) is untreatable, it's not worth genetic counseling since you are already expecting. Also, since your husband and his family are asymptomatic, and this isn't your sister-in-law but a much more distant relative of his, that will hopefully assure you that the chances of your child getting the disease are very slim. If I'm incorrect, and it's actually a disease that can and should be treated early on, I think it's fine she mentioned the possibility to you so that you can casually mention this to your obstetrician.

Once. Not repeatedly.

I agree with everyone else that the next time she brings it up you tell her that you are aware of the possibility now and ask that she no longer bring the topic of your future child's health up since pregnancy and worry is already stressful enough.

If her talking about the challenges she faces from her illness bother you, especially if it's heightening your anxiety since you've now got some background worry about your own child's health, you might want to disengage. I guess you could first ask her to no longer mention her illness since it's a topic you'd prefer not to discuss, but that seems pretty cruel to me, others may disagree. When someone has a chronic illness, especially one that presents with a multitude of symptoms, and especially if many of them are autonomic, it does effect almost every aspect of their life and make simple things far more challenging.
posted by stagewhisper at 8:49 AM on August 28, 2016 [18 favorites]

"Friend, I know you have ABC Disease top-of-mind all the time right now, but for my mental health and self-care I can't focus this intensely on it, we have to talk about something else. I know you need someone to talk to but it can't be me all the time."

You can additionally restrict topics, like tell her you of course care how she's doing, but you can't continue to skylark about causality or modality or research or diagnostic criteria anymore, as you aren't a professional so it's not like it's going to accomplish anything, and that your child/children's health is permanently off the table as a topic of discussion.

Boundaries are good. Use them.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:59 AM on August 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

It is completely possible to legitimately have a serious condition, and to be obsessed with it far beyond what is healthy or tolerable. It is also possible to revel in a serious health condition, to believe it's the most interesting thing about you, and to delight in frightening family members with the idea they may also develop the condition. Cite: Dealing with my mother for my entire life.

I have only managed to deal by saying, in no uncertain terms, "I will not discuss your health issues in conjunction with my child. This topic is permanently closed."

This is not too much to ask out of your relative. Her condition doesn't give her free reign to scaremonger about your child's heath. She will probably not completely stop, but she will cut back if you make it crystal clear that you're done talking about the subject.
posted by Coatlicue at 9:19 AM on August 28, 2016 [8 favorites]

Hey, is it ok if we don't talk about this any more? Pregnancy is stressful enough these days!

Then change the subject immediately.
posted by Sebmojo at 11:41 AM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Mod note: A few comments deleted. Folks, AskMe isn't a debate space, or a space to callout other members; and this thread isn't about diagnosing/psychoanalyzing the cousin or OP or other members. OP asked about how to set conversational boundaries; please keep it constructive.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 12:00 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you haven't raised the issue at all with her, it would be worth giving her a chance by saying something along the lines of "hey, I appreciate everything you've done to raise my awareness of the seriousness of this issue, and I know you deal with it every day. Still, talking about bad things that might happen to my baby freaks me out, so let's talk about something else." If she's a reasonable person who values your friendship, she'll respond to that. If she doesn't, then you can escalate to some of the stronger responses advised above, and/or think about whether or not it's worth continuing to spend time with this person at all.
posted by rpfields at 12:01 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: To clarify, I have no issues with her discussing the health issue with me in relation to herself. Some people seem to have that impression even though I thought I explicitly clarified that in my question. My sole objection is when it is brought to the conversation in the context of things I should be 'on the lookout' for involving baby---especially when the lookout things in question are sufficiently nebulous that they would have a benign explanation. I am just not willing to entertain paranoia every time my kid falls down and skins their knee, or squints in the sunshine or does any tiny thing. And I want her to respect that this level of paranoia is not good for me---but with that said, I am more than willing to listen if she wants to talk about herself.
posted by JoannaC at 1:04 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Why not tell her directly what you've just said right here? I've found it's most effective to simply be direct and factual about the situation, and boundaries you're setting. Then you soften the blow by telling her you aren't trying to hurt her feelings in any of this, you just felt the need to set some boundaries around this and head things off at the pass, because you do like spending time with her, and *polite change of subject* moving on, how was X that you were reading/trying out/etc. the other day?
posted by lizbunny at 1:35 PM on August 28, 2016 [6 favorites]

I think I'd give cousin some indirect and finally direct hints of "hey, this topic stresses me out, can we not talk about my baby and this anymore?"

If cousin can't let it go, I think it would be just fine to dial back the frequency of your coffee meetings.
posted by zippy at 2:24 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

It sounds like you are looking for gentle but clear wording to tell her to back off?

"Phyllis, listen, I gotta tell you, I know you're trying to help, but the whole topic of problems my unborn child might have is stressing me out beyond all measure. There are so many unknowns with a fetus and I'm just trying to get through my pregnancy without succumbing to total anxious meltdown. So please, no more talk about my baby's potential problems, ok? Like, at all. No more."
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:24 PM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't think you need to bring your own anxiety into the discussion, as some have suggested. She brought it up, you presumably acknowledged it, and that ought to be the end of it. If she brings it up again, just say "so you've said. We have a pediatrician/OBGYN/family doc so you need not bring it up again re: junior."

Then if she persists or repeats herself, a firmer response is called for. Aside from your doctor, nobody needs to give any other adult advice more than once. Unsolicited advice from friendly acquaintances/occasional lunch companions is unwelcome period, whether it's about your lipstick or your child's health.
posted by headnsouth at 5:27 PM on August 28, 2016

"Hey, I can't talk about this with respect to my baby. I'm freaking out, and you've got to not add to that by talking about this. I know we can come to you if this does turn out to be an issue and thank you for that, and let's just not talk about it until then."

source: relative of a complete hypochondriac who didn't settle the hell down until my husband firmly told her that stress is ALSO bad for the fetus and she HAD TO STOP. Whatever language you need to use to get her to stop talking about this is okay; people forgive pregnant women some rudeness around these sorts of issues. And feel free to blame your refusal to discuss it on hormones.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:34 PM on August 28, 2016

Preamble to my answer: if it is Ehler's Danlos (which it sounds like it is) - it is a real thing, which has a lot of possible manifestations because (depending on which kind it is), it can affect pretty much every tissue and system in the body, because an important building block (collagen) is wonky. It isn't well understood or managed by many doctors in North America, and it's probably under-recognized. It's also strongly associated with anxiety (especially panic disorder - there is a biological rationale for this that your friend could probably explain if you asked). I mention this because you used quote marks, suggesting you disbelieve your friend, and seem to think she's barking up the wrong tree (or maybe just barking). You can read up on it or not, believe her or not, I guess - what I think is important to remember when talking to your friend is that she has probably not been believed at all, by her husband or anyone around her. She probably does need to be a strong self-advocate (and yes it is advocacy that's required for E-D). I also mention it because a) she needs to feel validated and believed, because not being believed about pain you have, or a possible cause, is definitely going to add to any crazy that's already there or create it if it wasn't there before, and b) she is probably coming from a place of real concern for your kid. So bear her needs and motivations in mind when you speak to her.

All that said - suggest something like "I know you've had such a hard time. I know you're worried about Baby, and I appreciate that you're trying to spare us the kind of grief you've experienced. But as of now, Baby seems to be ok. And, I guess what might be hard for you to understand is that I'm a new mom, and I don't think I can be a relaxed mom if I'm being asked to worry about a possibility that hasn't seemed to happen. If the signs come up, we'll talk to her doc, for sure."

(But agree that disengaging is a good idea. Why would you want to spend lunches with someone you hardly know and don't believe, about something absolutely central to her life, when that very concern is stressing you out about the thing that's central to your life atm? You're in different kinds of moments that are not complementary, I think.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 6:20 PM on August 28, 2016 [3 favorites]

I don't see the need to beat around the bush. You're pregnant; it's just good manners not to fearmonger. "Please don't discuss scary things that could potentially happen to my child, I worry about him/her enough as it is." You could throw in a little anecdote about how anxiety-prone the hormones have made you for good measure.
posted by salvia at 7:47 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

As someone with (several) chronic illnesses and also the mutual friend of another chronic case, I can see both sides of the coin. This is a bit tricky but you do have options.

I think, annoying as it may be for you, that it might be helpful to put yourself in her place for a second. You don't have many friends. You feel like crap all the time. Every time another new symptom pops up on the Carousel of Hell, it weighs on you a little more.

When you have a chronic illness, your fear and your list of symptoms can start to define you. They can become your whole story. All yo have to offer an acquaintance in the way of casual chitchat over coffee. When you guys sit down, it sucks for you but remember her her overall situation is likely far worse than she's even letting on. I understand that you're trying to be supportive and letting her vent a bit and that's great- I'm just trying to give you her perspective too. But that doesn't make it ok for her to hog the ball all of the time. Friendship is a two way street. Other posters have given you some great feedback about how to ask directly for what you want. But the indirect way can be good here too.

Talk about other things.

A little well applied misdirection and some probing questions can work wonders. She's probably forgotten that is interesting or has anything to say that isn't illness related. But you can be the one to remind her. That might not be worth it to you but if it is, I wouldn't take no for an answer until you two find some good conversational common ground. Go on the offensive a bit, pretend you're Charlie Rose. When it circles back to illness ask her if she just saw that new movie that came out? How did she end up in this particular grad program? Does she like to cook? If so, what kinds of foods?

Force her to be accountable to you as a friend, not just a sounding board for her illness.

Now about your baby:

This is difficult but she probably has your best interests at heart. Seriously. I know that sometimes sick people see their condition in everyone. But it's not born out of a weird narcisstic kind of confirmation bias. It's based on fear. She is AFRAID for you and your baby because she has lived something really bad and doesn't actually want anyone else to go through it. Sick people think about this a lot. "If only someone could have intervened in my situation or given me the info I needed back then..."

It's not because she's sick so everyone else has to be sick too. Although that's how it may seem.

Thank her, explain that you fully understand where she is coming from (this should go a long way) and then set some boundaries using any of the scripts in the posts above.

If it doesn't stick, you might consider cutting ties with her. Some especially tragic cases do just become broken records who are incapable of really seeing others anymore. If she's truly like that, there's not much more you can do...sadly.
posted by ChickenBear at 5:41 AM on August 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

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