The Complaint Department

About ten years ago, I read P. D. Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous – an introduction to the theories and teachings of G.I. Gurdjieff. It gave me some great a-ha moments along the way, and a few interesting exercises – including one of going a period of time without complaining.  Now, this is commonly known as a positive psychology magic trick for mindfulness.  Ten years ago, it was still pretty revolutionary.

You’ll notice that the benefits of not complaining are pretty well-laid out: You have to go through the effort of reframing the situation. You gain perspective through observation. You might apply the “Is it true, kind, necessary” filter to your words.  You might make gratitude lists every night to try to reverse your trends in thinking.

In my twenties, I read an essay by Robert Fulghum that I frequently use to this day to determine the severity of my “problems” that he calls the Wollman Test of Reality.

For anyone who has also internalized the messages of our culture to suck up negative emotions and avoid whining, this whole thing seems to make tons of sense. Anyone who has been around a “Debbie Downer” knows that it can be depressing to be around someone who complains chronically.  Nobody wants to be Debbie.

All of this has made if very hard for me to open up and talk about my current experiences.

Complaining vs. Whining

Complaining is expression of a negative feeling with the intention or goal of finding a resolution. Whining is just expression of negative feeling in a particularly childish way. Venting is angrily expressing feelings “blowing off steam” without a goal of solution.

Most of us in the corporate world know not to go to our bosses with complaints. We should go to our bosses with perspective and proposed solutions. Proper complaints are thoughtful. They are the expression of something in need of change or improvement.

We complain so someone can help us problem solve, or so we can fix a situation.

What if There is No Solution?

When people ask me how I’m doing, I usually reply with a neutral “okay” or “hanging in there.” I don’t say “fine” or “good” unless it’s a complete stranger.  I almost never tell the actual truth.  I assume most people don’t really want to know about the daily suckitude of my condition – or that they are sick of hearing about it.

Image result for grown ups ask how you are but don't really want to know

“Grown-ups are WEIRD because every one of them says how are you? and you always have to say good even if you’re not good.”

On balance, I’m so hard-core on the “suck it up” side of things that when I have the flu, my husband has literally forgotten that I was sick because I don’t outwardly express the reality of my  symptoms.   Now that I have an invisible illness, it’s even worse.

The results of this are:

  1. I don’t feel like I can ask for the help that I need
  2. I don’t always get the help that I need
  3. I feel even more emotionally isolated from the people who love me because I’m not sharing my feelings with them.


It’s not even really complaining if I tell the truth about my current state. It’s observing and noticing my current state. It could be whining if I were to pitch my voice a certain way, or venting, if I pitched my voice another.

I’ve been having lunch dates and talking to so many people, but I’m doing this at a shallow level. I’m not deeply connecting with them. I’m not talking about my emotional reality. I’m catching up on small talk and big picture stuff.  This doesn’t help my sense of loneliness. It just makes me tired and lonely instead of alone and lonely.

The Complaint Problem Goes Both Ways

Brett has also been in suck-it-up mode, and trying not to complain about the extra heavy lifting he’s had to do around the house these past few months.  He doesn’t want me to feel bad about his stress levels. And he doesn’t want to burden me with more to think about.

The result is that I don’t know what is really going on with him. Because I won’t complain to him, he doesn’t know what’s going on with me. And we drift further and further apart.

It helped when I said “This is a shitty situation. Let’s make a rule that we are absolutely allowed to whine.”  But then we both stopped whining out of habit and the drift started back up again.

I have other friends who are all “What’s going on in my life is nothing compared to what’s going on in yours” and who try not to complain because of a sense of perspective. But again, that interpersonal divide quietly happens between us.

All the Complaining: My Current State

The barometer has been dropping steadily in Atlanta for 3 days. I’m in a lot of pain, probably the worst I’ve been in about a month.  My pain is at about a 5 out of 10 today. My hands and knuckles hurt the worst. The tops of my feet hurt a lot too.

For most of April, it seemed like the humira was helping.  My energy levels seemed to be better, I could walk further and do more without konking out. Right now, I’m not so sure. It’s so hard to tell with these other factors at play.  I don’t know whether it’s helping at all.  Of course, if it takes 6 months to kick in, I might not know until August.

I am hurting. I’m exhausted. And I’m afraid.

I’m afraid this is as good as it gets. I’m afraid I won’t have the energy or health to do all the things I want to do in the coming months or years (or ever again). I’m afraid it will take years of trial and error and side effects to get my meds right so I CAN do things. I’m afraid I’ll never backpack again. I’m afraid I won’t be able to handle grad school because of all of this.  When I talk about this, I usually pollyanna it. I say how I’m working on the solutions for these problems.  Which is true. But sometimes, I’m just afraid.

I’m impatient, angry, and frustrated.

I’m absolutely sick of not knowing how I’m going to feel from one day to the next, and having to schedule everything in pencil. I’m tired of looking for patterns to understand how much energy I may or may not have, and then having to bail on plans when I’ve misjudged.   My friends understand. But still, it sucks. I don’t get to do things I look forward to doing.  I’m tired of not being able to do basic things like grocery shop or cook dinner.

The trip we took showed me I need to bake in an extra day just for travel and let myself rest a lot before and after flights. This changes all of my plans and impacts a lot of things.

I’m still having a hard time emotionally dealing with riding in the wheelchairs through airports. I learned the hard way that I absolutely do need them, and there’s a good heap of angst going on under the surface about that.    My friends who have dealt with autoimmune disorders are all like “get over it. swallow your pride. take the chair.” and they oversimplify the emotional journey I’m in the middle of.  Or, they have forgotten it.

Yes, I swallowed my pride and I took the chair. And I also had to war with myself as I did it. Yes, I shoved my personal dignity to the ground to do what I needed to do for self-care, and I fucking hated every minute of it.  That is not the person I’ve seen myself as for 40 years. And it is the person I am right now. And it sucks.  It’s allowed to suck. I know that. But I feel like I’m not necessarily allowed to express how horribly it sucks.

In a very real way, frankly, I’m experiencing a loss of privilege. I’m moving from abled to disabled.   I’m seeing the dehumanizing effect of riding through an airport in a chair, and the looks people give me,  the ways their eyes slide off me, and the things they don’t say.  I watched an older woman with a cane take my chair in Austin because she clearly needed it more than I did – me with my invisible illness.  I didn’t fight it. My pride wouldn’t let me.

I’m still really lonely.

Even with people coming to the house for lunch and visitors breezing through town I’m lonely.  I know this is because I’m not talking about the reality of my situation. I’m not letting anyone in.  Not really.  Because I don’t want to complain. And right now, if I let people into my emotional space, it is largely negative.

8 thoughts on “The Complaint Department

  1. I wish I could help more. Try not to let that lonely thing keep you down because so many people are thinking of you daily and trying to find ways to share the burden of your pain. Your current emotional situation is alot like growing old–but zipping to it in months instead of decades. Hopefully you’ll be able to reverse the condition and relieve the pain with the medication.

  2. If I could I would take all your pain and hold it for you. It pulls at my heart. Please fight the urge to isolate yourself emotionally. Mimi is right, It is a lot like growing old but in fast forward. and even tho we have had some time to come to terms with it that doesn’t mean we won’t rage against its consequences and the evidence of our mortality from time to time. I have hopes that you will get the meds settled down and your life headed down the road you want to travel.

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  4. Pingback: Upon Loss of Privilege | Alicia K. Anderson

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