Living in the center of the circle

There’s a thing I read on the LA Times website that I’ve shared a zillion times, because it’s such good advice. SUCH good advice. In most situations. But I’m starting to feel like it isn’t such good advice in mine.

Go read it now. No, seriously, we need a common frame of reference to make the rest of this discussion make sense. Are you back? Good.

Here’s the thing about the circles. In the short term, they make absolute sense. The person in the center of the circle is the one having the crisis, and thus the one who needs the most support and has the least ability to take care of everyone else around them. The people in the next ring need the next most support, and thus are next least able to take care of everyone around them. Comfort in, dump out. It’s a great way to help a friend get through a crisis.

That said, I feel like this model isn’t sustainable in the long term. Eventually, the person in the center starts to feel isolated, a delicate flower that everyone tiptoes around and hides their feelings from because they’re trying not to be a burden. Which means, the person in the center doesn’t get to have full and meaningful relationships with the people around her. And frankly, I don’t want to live like that for the rest of my life.

I mean, I can’t prop everyone up. I just can’t. I don’t have it in me. But at the same time, when everyone is putting on their brave face and not telling me that they feel sad or angry or whatever it is they feel? Yeah, that doesn’t fool me. It just makes me feel pitied and less-than and so very, very alone, rather than supported and loved–which I know is everyone’s goal, because my friends and family are wonderful big-hearted people.

Let me put it another way: it’s hard for me to talk about how I feel to people who don’t ever talk to me about how THEY feel. If you’re bottling, I’m bottling. We’re not having a relationship–we’re both wearing masks.

What’s the answer, then, for those of us who have to live in the center of the circle for the rest of our lives? The fuck if I know. I’m starting to think that all I can do is kvetch about how people are making me feel shitty by trying not to make me feel shitty.

Or maybe it’s this: maybe it’s about remembering when the immediate crisis of treatments and feeling ill are over that the person with the cancer in the center of the circle is still a person, not an object of pity, not a delicate flower that can’t be exposed to anything negative. We’re people, and we want to have real, honest relationships with other people.

5 thoughts on “Living in the center of the circle

  1. I read the LA Times piece over a year ago and have been looking for it ever since! Beth, I cannot believe I found it here. I have searched and searched obsessively but, wow, thank you like crazy!

    So, I was thinking, maybe the circle thing is most appropriate for the real acute phase of the trauma. Just like, after an accident you may have to be totally immobile in the beginning, then at some point you have to join back into the fray.

    Or, maybe the thing to do is, if you’re on the outer circles and are starting to feel a strain, ask the person if they’re up for some sharing. And, if you’re in the inner circle and you start feeling that tightness, tell them you need to hear about somebody ELSE’S problems for a change. I actually remember saying that once or twice.

    I do think this circle thing is a great place to start, though. I remember listening endlessly to relatives complain about their finances and husbands when I had neither: I was barely surviving with two kids and lupus, hand-to-mouth on assistance after my husband, fleeing the grim reaper, left me with a one and three year old, and then died anyway at 39.

    I should never have let them do it. It was very demoralizing to me and all these years later I’m still furious. Not than anyone wants to hear about it. The thing is, when you’re in the center of the circle you’re defenseless and too easy to take advantage of. Whether it’s intentional or not.

    Sorry, this really brought up a lot. Glad you wrote it, though. It might help me to re-evaluate and dump some old baggage. Or not. 🙂

  2. When my mother had thyroid cancer, I remember my Dad telling me that I should be positive, and not say things that will worry her or bring her down. This went on for a few weeks, and I found myself quickly sliding into a dark depression. Which was illogical, because it’s one of the most survivable cancers, and they found it super early, so there was very little threat to her life. Finally, during a long distance conversation, she asked me to tell her what was wrong. It took some wheedling, but I finally let it go. I swore a lot, I told her how scared I was, I told her that it was fucking unfair to all of us, I told her how selfish that all felt, but that dam had finally broke and I felt free of a lot of pressure.

    But the really funny thing? She was glad someone finally told her the truth. She DID feel isolated in the center of that circle. She WAS tired of having everyone handle her with velvet kid gloves all the damned time. Because she wanted to be angry, too. She wanted the ability to cry and mope and thrash about without having someone pat her on the shoulder and tell her it would all be okay. So, I dumped in, yeah? But ultimately, it was what my Mom needed.

    1. EXACTLY. Kid gloves are awfully soft, but they’re not always comfortable.

      I hope your mom is doing OK these days!

  3. My sister had a friend that came to her chemo treatments and brought her a bunch of trash magazines, gave updates about her own kids and just made her laugh. I loved her for that and it was a gift for our family b/c we couldn’t go their without tears b/c we were so close to it.. The outer circle can serve you well.

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