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The Vine: April 3, 2013

Submitted by on April 3, 2013 – 8:58 AM23 Comments


I've emailed the Vine before, twice, and you and your readers were awesome both times. The first time was my asking for advice on how to deal with my rapidly spiraling depression as an international student in Canada, and afterward, I sent you a follow-up letter explaining that I'd decided to return home, move back in with my parents, and get help. That was a few years ago.

Fast forward to now, and things are pretty good. I've managed to come on leaps and bounds dealing with this thing. I got a job in an environmental field, which I'd always wanted, and kept that until earlier this year (so I'd had it for over two years) before resigning due to the fact that the organization was being badly mismanaged. Found another job, still in an environmental organization, so that's all great.

The issue is this: in the three years I've been back here, dealing with my health issues (I found out about a year after I got back that I have a congenital hormonal condition that might actually have been the root of the depression, as well as all of the other awful physical issues I'd been struggling with for ages) has taken pretty much all my spare time, so I've had very little of a social life and had to be extremely careful with what I could do in terms of physical activity. Treatments and medications and dealing with the emotional/psychological element sucked up all my time. It was worth it, I really am so much better now, but at the moment, most of my friends live elsewhere and I communicate with them online. I don't go out much, and I'm just starting to get back into outdoorsy physical stuff that I'd just started to realize I enjoyed four years ago when these health issues all kicked off and shut it down.

My new coworkers (all expatriates who have been in this country only a few years) are a close bunch — the work environment is really friendly and close because we by necessity have to spend a lot of time together, and it's natural to talk about what people did on the weekends, talk about our lives, etc. This is the problem: I have no idea how to deal with these conversations. I don't know if I should bring up the fact that I've been dealing with a serious illness which has impacted my personal life, by way of explaining that no, I'm not just a loser who has no friends nor hobbies despite having lived in this country for ages before going away to university and having been back here for three years now. (The issues have never affected my work, which is why it hasn't come up at, say, the interview stage for getting the job. I never let it get in the way of work. Work was one of the things that helped me, being useful, earning money, being functional in at least one aspect of my life.)

I don't know how to manage this. These people are really friendly and I don't just want to shut down their questions and isolate myself. Should I lie? Pretend I had a drink with friends on the weekend? And, of course, there's the point that a lot of the hobbies and things they do are all the things I wanted to get into all those years ago but didn't (rock-climbing, hiking, other similar stuff), so I'm right there with them when they're talking about how cool these things are, but I've never done them, or am just starting to, or am picking up at "beginner" level again. And I don't know how to explain why that is without getting into the health thing.

Would it be weird, or oversharing, to tell them, somehow? I'm terrified they'll judge me, not consciously, even, but just file me away as someone they don't really want to hang out with. Would it be worse than them thinking that this friendless person who doesn't do anything is who I am, instead of who I've had to be for a couple of years? It genuinely feels like I'm returning to life again after almost five years of misery and pain and isolation…but I have no idea how to explain that when I meet someone and they're all, so, tell me about yourself!

It's not just with the coworkers. I have this issue every time I meet someone new, and, naturally, we start talking about what we do, where we like to hang out, etc etc. Sometimes I downplay it, or lie. But lying isn't really a great foundation for relationships, so I hate doing it.

Honestly, if you, or any of the Vine readers, have been through this and have any advice on how to handle it, I would be so very grateful.

Not A Loser, Really

Dear Really,

I have excellent news! Behold: this is a much, much bigger deal to you than it is to anyone else. It should be a big deal to you — it's your health, and it's also your social life — but nobody else is going to correlate it with negative personality traits, or your having something wrong with you. I mean, you kind of do, but it's not your fault; it's not like a loser lightning bolt hit you with a physical condition to, like, mark you as lame. Nobody else is going to think, "Wait, she's just a beginner at rock-climbing? CONVERSATIONAL FELONY I'M-A SWITCH SEATS EW." Nobody else is going to sit around wondering why you don't go to the pub on the weekend, or if you mention that you did, whether you can prove it.

You already know that, but it's hard to stop those social-obsessive thoughts, so the first thing to do is to accept that it's normal to believe — or at least fret — that these differences between you and your colleagues will lead to judgment and exclusion. It's not rational…but it's normal. So forgive yourself for freaking out about that.

But as I said, it's not really rational — and neither is the way you've broken down your choices here. It seems to me like you want to confess yourself, "admit to" everything about your health issues, but you think that's off-putting, so the other choice is to lie like a horrible conniving person…it's way more drama than you need to put yourself through. For one, your health problems aren't a sin you committed. They exist; you've dealt with them. So, for two, you don't have to tell anyone anything, or everything. You can work it in gently.

Colleague: "What'd you do this weekend?"
You: "Not much, actually. Took a Me Sunday and [something something Downton]. You?"
Colleague: "I had a rad time doing [outdoor thing you are psyched to do now that you're feeling better]."
You: "Wow, that sounds awesome. I was getting into [that thing] a few years ago, but then I started having some health problems so I had to let it slide. Do you think it's something beginners could etc. etc.?"
Colleague, probably: "Oh, that sucks. But I think the instructor [blah blah something helpful], so we should go together in a few weeks' time and [inviting suggestion]."

I mean, I don't have a crystal ball, but I'm confident that what's not going to happen is either that your colleague gets nosy about the specifics of your health, or judges you for focusing on it to the exclusion of more hale or social activities. Your colleagues probably like you and would like to get to know you better, and to include you at the level you can manage; this isn't an older-sibling situation where, if you can't ski the black diamond yet, they're going to ditch you at the top of the slope. And you know, you can always invite them for a more low-key thing, like…I don't know. Hiking up a small hill and having flask cocktails at the top, Europe-in-the-'20s-style. …Actually, now I want to do that. You should come! Bring your hormones! People want to like you! You deserve to let them! Now grab that gin and some fashion mags and let's GET THIS DONE!

I'm teasing, but seriously: give yourself a break for worrying about this and not knowing how to handle it, and then just…bring it up. "I had some health crap and couldn't do this stuff for a few years. Now I'm envious that you can do it, and I want to hear more about it. And maybe come with?"

And when you first meet someone, same basic deal. Nobody is owed any info, and many many people have physical ailments from time to time that put them in dry dock; nothing to be ashamed of there. Brief, vague references are all you need, and if you get closer to someone and want to share more, go for it. If you don't, great. "About yourself" is about yourself, what you like, what you read, how you feel about sushi.

Don't forget to give yourself some credit for nadding up and dealing with a tough situation, either.

Anyone still reading after I gassed on for seventeen screens? Okay, crickets: give Really some insights. (Hee.)

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  • Angharad says:

    My go-to 'excuse' for any lack of social activity (for emotional or physical reasons) has been "I've been really busy with other stuff, but my schedule's starting to clear up and I'd love to get involved in (activity other person does)." It's vague enough to not give a real explanation, but also doesn't make me seem completely out of it socially.

    The other thing is that you can get involved in a low-key thing without your coworkers. I promise, absolutely no one in a charity will care how socially active you've been if you walk in and say you want to volunteer. That was the first thing I started doing – reading out loud to the stressed-out cats that had just been brought in to an animal shelter – and it gave me something to talk about when conversations turned to social stuff.

    And just about everyone has had experience with someone being 'out of commission,' whether it was themselves or someone they know. I don't think anyone that actually knows you will be particularly judgmental about it either way.

  • Maria says:

    Agree with Sars on a breezy disclosure and going forward with what you want to do. You are totally in the drivers' seat, because the medical stuff is behind you. If you were still in that soup, it wouldn't give people any way to make overtures. Face it, the whole point of getting well was to be able to get your life back. The time has come. I hope you have a BLAST!!!!

  • attica says:

    Congrats on getting better!

    If, when you're sharing, your tone says 'whatever went before, I'm better now', that's all your peeps will hear. I agree you don't want to overshare, but that's less likely to happen if your focus is 'better now' rather than 'sick then.'

    When you get more comfortable if and when the subject is broached, you can tell the story of your illness like an adventure tale. Felled by hormones! Trapped in bed for weeks! Communicating with the outside world only by tapping on wee keys by flashlight! No reason you can't make light of a dark time, after all, and that will help your new friends avoid pearl-clutching and/or weirdness.

  • Ang. says:

    I just want to +1 what Sars said and to tell you that if you give people a chance, most of them will step up. If you say, "Hey, that sounds fun, I'd love to try that sometime," the chances are good that they are absolutely going to invite you next time. There's no reason to think that these folks don't like you or wouldn't like you and every reason to believe that they'd like to know you better. Everyone has problems; we all have physical and/or emotional limitations. You're not alone in that, and you deserve to have friends and some fun. Good luck!

  • Ang. says:

    Ooh, I just reread the end of Attica's response, and YES. Sense of humor is the way to go. I moved three years ago, and dealt with pretty crippling depression before that, and sometimes with newish friends (people I didn't know when it was happening), I will allude to The Time My Brain Tried to Kill Me. It's just a thing that happened; it's not something that defines me. It's something I dealt with and got help with and then moved forward. It's my past, and it can only hurt my future if I let it.

  • AnotherEmily says:

    Just to flip your perception a little bit, you say that most of your co-workers are expats, right? And that you feel like they think you're weird for not having more friends, despite being from your region? When I moved across the country, to a place where everyone had known everyone else since birth, I adored meeting people who weren't already entrenched in a super firm social circle that had no room for new people. It meant they were more open to being friends with me, more likely to be inclusive, less likely to reference things that had happened 20 years ago as if they had just happened yesterday. (Not to say everyone did that! Most people were very nice, but since they already had friends, they weren't really in the market for new ones.) So I just want to suggest that the not having a ton of local friends is not the turn-off the letter writer thinks; it could even be a positive.

  • Cora says:

    Your coworkers are awesome, so are you. Would you believe some of them are looking at you and thinking, "Wow, should I tell her about the awful thing that happened to me? Would she run away screaming? I sure hope not; I like her."

    Not trying to be dismissive of what you've been through, of course not, you rock; the point is that a whole lot of other people out there are so concerned about whether or not you'll accept them and their issues, that it might not even occur to them to notice that you've been out of commission for a few years. And if they do, I like attica's Dealing Method.

  • c8h10n4o2 says:

    I'm gimpy in a way that isn't going to stop, and humor is definitely the way to go. I moved back to my hometown for the family support and help, and aside from one old friend, kind of restarted. I've gotten involved in stuff that I can do, am interested in stuff that I can't do and express that interest, and nobody seems to mind one bit. People aren't as judgy about medical issues as we always fear that they are, especially if you take the pressure off of them to be all concerned and scared of breaking you.

  • MinglesMommy says:

    You'd be surprised how many people (AHEM – me LOL) don't do a heck of a lot on their weekends. I like a very mellow, low-key weekend; it's a big deal if I actually do something. There's nothing wrong with that.

    If you WANT to, you can say, "Well, I had some serious health issues that kept me from being active for a while, but I'm starting to get moving again – any suggestions?" But it's up to you. There's no need to go deeply into anything in particular.

    I know what it's like to be sidelined by emotional/physical health issues. Take it step by step. You'll do great!

  • Stephanie says:

    I bet if you get to know your colleagues – and make other new friends too – you'll realize a LOT of people have health issues they keep relatively private. I've been in my current job for just about 2 years now and have been getting to know my colleagues socially. I would say more than half of them have surprised me by telling me about major health issues in their past and present.

    It's made me much more comfortable mentioning my own battles with depression – though from now on I'll be calling it 'That Time My brain Tried to Kill Me' TM Ang – and also very thankful and relieved to have recovered and aware of how lucky I am not to be dealing with something worse.

    Now that I know about some of these things, I don't bring it up unless they do. I'm sort of aware in the back of my head that my colleague who has MS isn't one to ask for helping moving heavy boxes, but it would never ever prevent me from inviting her to do anything – from drinking a beer to playing baseball. I trust she'll tell me if she's not up for it.

    Also if you want an excuse for doing nothing all weekend, take up knitting. When people ask what you did all weekend, just get really specific about yarn and gauge and watch their eyes glaze over completely.

  • Amanduh says:

    What Sars said is almost precisely what I was thinking, especially the sample dialogue of how to slide it into a conversation. I'd also advise you to start that conversation and get it over, the very next time you have a natural opening. I really think the worry about doing this is causing you far more tension and unhappiness than the outcome of doing this possibly could.

    And just remember that although your co-workers may ask about your health issues (if they are nice friendly people, they will be genuinely concerned about your health!), they don't need the details. It's OK to give just a tiny glimpse of it: "It's a long story, but last year the doctors FINALLY realized I had an undiagnosed hormonal imbalance, and I'm finally getting back to leading a normal life". That's not the complete story, but it's also not a lie, and if you realize that they've stopped being coworkers and started being friends, then you can tell them the rest of the story over a glass of wine one night.

  • Amy Number 512 says:

    If you're not comfortable with telling people why you haven't been a busy body, then don't tell them. It's okay to be vague, or to say, "I just haven't had the free time until now." Now that you are feeling better (and congrats on that!), this is your chance to become more social if you'd like to. As someone else pointed out, you don't have to be social with your coworkers but if they happen to be into something you like (underwater basket weaving, anybody?), this gives you the opportunity to say, "I've always wanted to try that, where do you go?"

    Our pesonal lives are personal and we don't have to share it with others unless and until we're comfortable enough. If, by chance, people do pry, it's okay to brush them off politely. Otherwise, only share if/when you're comfortable. In the meantime, just keep the conversation casual.

  • ferretrick says:

    If you're shy or socially reserved or introverted or whatever you want to call it, here's one of the great secrets of life: People love to talk about THEMSELVES and particularly, their hobbies. So when you don't have much to say yourself, turn the conversation back around to them. "Oh, I kind of had a lazy, do nothing weekend. I enjoy that once in a while. What did you do? You did? Is it fun? Is it hard? How long did it take you to learn?" Keep them talking about what they did and how awesome it is. Instead of focusing all your energy on what you are going to say that could possibly interest them, develop your listening skills and focus your energy on showing interest in their interests-people LOVE a good audience. And-if they rock climb or do whatever and you would like to do it with them, say, "wow, I've always wanted to try that" or "I used to do that back home, but I haven't found a good place to do it here. Where do you go?" And say it sincerely-9 times out of 10 this is going to score you an invitation the next time. Needless to say, though, know the difference between showing an interest because you genuinely would like to take up the activity yourself and showing an interest because you want to forge a friendship and don't sign up for things you wouldn't actually enjoy.

    And you DO do things on the weekend-unless you slept for 48 hours straight, you can probably find one thing in your weekend you can talk about. If you can't, structure your weekends so you can. You had to eat right? Did you try a new restaurant? (Nobody has to know if it was takeout). Did you cook your own food? Did you try a new recipe? Was it memorably good (or entertainingly bad)? Did you see a movie? (Nobody has to know you Netflixed it and watched it by yourself). Did you read a good book? Watch bad TV? Another secret-most people's weekends aren't that fascinating, at least not every weekend. "How was your weekend" is really just a starter to open a conversational branch-no one is expecting to hear an epic novel about your amazing weekend and thinking you're a loser if your answer is "I turned off the TV and marathoned the 1st two seasons of Game of Thrones because I'm super excited about the new season." How else are you going to meet another Game of Thrones nerd? Or convert someone? (just saying people, it's awesome)…

  • Jen S 1.0 says:

    Everyone here has covered it. Be as friendly to them as you'd want them to be to you. I can't think of any reasonably well adjusted adult who would demand alibis, detailed logs of your weekend, or doctor's notes in order to deem you worthy to talk to or hang out with.

    If the problem is more that you don't know when/how much to disclose, the details are always in your power to reveal or conceal. If you grow very close to someone you'll naturally feel more comfortable mentioning the extent of your health problems, but you never "owe" anyone a medical background check.

  • Sarah says:

    I'm friends with lots of my co-workers (there really aren't that many of us, so by "lots" I mean 5 or 6), and they all know the gory details of my health problems, but that's because I was out for several weeks last summer for surgery. That being said, when my health kept me/keeps me from socializing, I'm just like "Eh, needed some me time." Or I go to my parents and lay low for the weekend and say "Spent the weekend with my parents and dogs." No one questions my need for time to rest, and if I can join, they are happy to have me. Also, since they know my health problems, they know how to help me if I have a crisis at work.

    If I'm meeting someone new who doesn't know the whole sordid story, like everyone says, I usually sort of allude to health problems and people nod. Rarely do people pry excessively, and honestly, if they want to know more, I'll tell them (minus the gory part).

    People are supportive and great about it. I doubt anyone is going to be all "WTF, mate?"

  • Elisa says:

    What Sars said! I honestly don't even try. When co-workers ask me what I did (let me preface by saying I don't like where I work and am in the process of leaving) I say "Nothing, really. Just hung out." Not every single time, but the truth is nobody cares and if someone said that to me I'd nod and say "Relaxing weekend? Cool."

    The conversation about your struggles is probably best left for more intimate conversation with people that you trust and feel close to.

  • attica says:

    This is something I've actually done. When somebody asks me what I did this past weekend, I sometimes answer (truthfully), "OMG I. Did. Nothing. It. was. Awesome." And way more than once, the response is 'oooh, that sounds niiiiice.'

    Or you can roll your eyes and say 'Laundry! Whee!' and kind of make fun of yourself for doing something everybody's got to. You'll undoubtedly get a lot of commiseration.

  • LynzM says:

    Just to throw this out there: if you haven't watched Brené Brown's TED talk on vulnerability, you owe it to yourself to do so. We're all human, we all have struggles. Some of us choose to share them more openly with others. When you can share your experiences, and frame them in a way that doesn't invite self-pity but rather human connection, you will find plenty of people who are open to doing the same. There's nothing wrong in playing it totally down, as people suggested above, but also nothing wrong in saying "Hey, you guys talk about some awesome things you go do… I was really sick for a while (with ____) and couldn't do that stuff, but I'd love to explore it again now that I'm getting healthy again."

  • Stanley says:

    When something difficult has been central to your life for so long, I can see how hard it is to think it will be obvious to other people. But like everyone else has said…no one is going to notice or think it's weird if you say you haven't been doing much. That is honestly my answer most of the time: "I was tired so I didn't do anything this weekend" or "Eh, not much" or "um, I can't remember. Nothing, I guess." Because I don't have a back story for why I do nothing (my back story: I am actually lazy and enjoy being inside my house), it doesn't occur to me that anyone will think there's anything weird about my answers.

    And I second the point that if your co-workers are all ex-pats, they'd probably be happy to be able to make friends with a local who's not already completely friended-up. Building those relationships when you're living abroad is hard, so I bet they'd be glad if you indicated an interest in starting up with one of their activities. And if they think it's lame that you're a beginner at something…I guess they've self-selected out of being your friend, right?

    Good luck! It's always a good thing to remember that other people rarely even notice the things we're most self-conscious about.

  • Barb says:

    @ ANG,
    pleeeease start a blog called "The Time My Brain Tried to Kill Me."
    I want to be able to read it on my slow weekends.

  • Erin W says:

    I'm totally a weekend hermit, so I'm used to having no answer to the question. I'll talk about what movie I watched or how the weather was, or give the calculatedly non-committal answer, "I just worked on some projects at home."

    Also, no one has addressed this, Really, but there doesn't have to be a stigma to doing things alone. If you don't have friends to go out with right now, try doing some stuff solo. See a movie. Have brunch in a cafe and read the paper. Take a class in something. You'll have more to talk about, you're more likely to meet people if you're out and about, and you'll be taking control of your own fun.

  • misspiggy says:

    If you like your colleagues, it might be important to share some of what's been happening with your health, so that you feel they know more about who you are. If you feel like that, go for it. Just in small ways, as others have suggested above. Then you don't have to worry about a major disconnect between how they see you and how you see yourself. It can be a big relief to do it.

    In practice, you probably won't get any reaction the first time you mention what you've been going through. People often don't take these things in, especially if 'you don't look sick'. But you'll feel much better for being able to talk about it freely, and some people will be interested and supportive.

    There may be a very small minority of colleagues who are scared of illness or disability and might become standoffish or weird. But those people will already have shown themselves to have quite significant personality problems, so you can avoid bringing it up around them.

  • Ang says:

    @Barb, oh, I just might. Haha.

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