When I adopt my future child (see here), the phrase “uh-huh” will probably be worthy of a “Swear Jar” donation according to Ally’s Little Book of Rules. (All proceeds will go directly to diabetes research- let’s chill out, please!)
“Uh-huh” offends me not because of what it says, but because of what it does not say. It is an empty phrase which does not even pretend to hide its indifference.
I will be the first to admit that I tend to get overly excited about nerdy diabetes-related things. I follow diabetes stocks and press releases on my cell phone, enthusiastically peruse the blogosphere, keep up with DiaTribe and DiabetesMine articles, and look for every opportunity to discuss the information I devour. I have pledged to my doctors on many occasions that I will take a break from healthcare information overload, but it proves to be a difficult task when fighting for your health every day. Diabetes and healthcare are interests which are inextricably intertwined with my very existence. They are not the totality of who I am as a person, but they are passions of mine with very stubborn “off” switches.
However, diabetes and healthcare are not everyone else’s passions. So when I am rambling on and on at happy hour about the latest blood glucose meter technology or that one time I ate the entire carton of ice cream during a nighttime hypoglycemic episode, I need to take a step back and realize that others may not be quite as into this stuff as I am. Fair enough. If I could be cured of diabetes tomorrow, I would jump at the chance. Although I suspect that my interests in diabetes and healthcare may not subside once I am cured, I would not mind finding a new, less serious interest to take up some of my time. Badminton, anyone?
“Uh-huh” is suitable if I am boring you at the bar with a story that you do not really care about. “Uh-huh” is not acceptable if I am talking about something deeply emotional that affects my health. Dexcom software upgrades are one thing, but my personal health triumphs and tribulations are quite another. If I am describing a diabetes incident that spooked me or a frustrating few days of persistently high blood sugars, I am opening up to you because I want you to hear me. I trust you. I want you to value what I am saying as important, to empathize, to not pretend that you know the answers but to simply be there for me nonetheless.
When you say “uh-huh” on the other end of the phone and change the channel on the television running in the background, what I hear is not “uh-huh.” Instead, the message conveyed is, “I am sick of this same old story. Diabetes sucks. I get it.” You know what? It does suck. And it may continue to suck. It’s diabetes, and it’s a selfish jerkface. Sure, I have experienced a rough year of diabetes transitions (insulin pumping to MDI to every emotion felt along the way), but I do not get to “uh-huh” away this disease. I sure as heck hope that it is not especially difficult every day until there is a cure, but sometimes there are long stretches of time where diabetes is a royal pain in the a$$, whether or not we are talking about Lantus burn at backside injection sites.
We are all human, though, and I caught myself “uh-huh-ing” a friend last week. My coworkers and I are working from home a majority of the time now, a nice perk for those of us who require multiple cups of coffee before we are properly-functioning each morning. The downside to working at home is that we do not have one another within walking distance if we need help. Recently, my friend (let’s call him Jason) called my cell to seek advice on a difficult case. My blood sugar was a bit rocky in that moment, and I felt the familiar brain fog that accompanies those overtired, rollercoaster health days.
“I’m thinking if we use this regulation, I should be denying this issue,” he said.
“Yeah, but I just emailed you the updated guidance. We can grant benefits only if that particular symptom is present, which it is here,” I replied, as we went back and forth with medical evidence and legal stipulations to try to make the right decision.
The more we interpreted the guidance on the case, the more I found myself nodding and saying, “right, right, uh-huh” as I clicked through online documents, only half-paying attention to what Jason was trying to tell me at this point.
Frankly, I had made up my mind about what we should do on the case five minutes earlier, and I wanted him to be on the same page. Eventually, our viewpoints fell somewhere in the middle and we were able to move forward.
The moral of the story is that everybody “uh-huhs” now and then. At times, I am guilty of what I am critiquing here, too. So what are we going to do to fix this?
Society often incorrectly relates empathy to having actual experience in the particular situation occurring. For example, a cancer patient can empathize with another cancer patient, but a person untouched by illness cannot offer any valuable input. I do not personally believe this. First off, every person’s cancer or diabetes or death of a parent or any other difficult cross to bear has its own nuances. We are all different people from different backgrounds with different struggles. But the common denominator is that we are all human beings. Because of this, we all know how to empathize. It does not mean that we have to experience carbon copies of one another’s pain. Rather, we simply have to offer up messages of support.
Instead of saying “uh-huh” when I describe an aggravating diabetes day, say something like, “I’m sorry. That sounds so tiring. Let me know if you need to chat later.” Please listen. If I wanted to talk to an empty space, I’d jump rope to the beat of a diabetes jingle or throw a tennis ball against the wall while collecting my thoughts. But instead, I have chosen to tell you, someone who is so important to me and my diabetes fight.
Acknowledge my pain, but do not feel like you have to magically erase it for me. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Nowhere in that verse do I hear the phrase “uh-huh.”
I pledge to support you in the same ways that I want to be supported- devoid of “uh-huhs” but generous in understanding. If I do not know what to say, I will attempt to think twice before muttering an empty rationalization. “At least it’s not XYZ” belittles the struggle. Instead, I’ll speak the truth next time: “ABC is very difficult. Please know that I’m here for you.” We cannot suddenly cure illness overnight, but we can make a more concerted effort to see each other through tough times.
From now on, let’s walk together, instead of “uh-huh-ing” each other. Promise?