Be nice: what I’m learning from being voiceless

Several months ago I issued a challenge to myself: to be nice for 365 days. I’d just come off of a couple of months of illness and was heading into the new year eager to take on a new project.

That lasted a few weeks.

I continued to recover from my repeated bouts of bronchitis/breathing issues (which began in November) and even recovered my voice enough to do two book signings. It was slow progress, but by the end of January, when I had a big book release party, I was feeling great.

Two days later, I was back in bed with a high fever, and a few days after that? I went to the doctor because I was having one of my breathing episodes; he took one look at me and sent me by ambulance to the ER. (That was the third time since November I’d been a guest in the emergency room.)

Eventually I had an exam by an ear/nose/throat (ENT) doctor, who diagnosed my problem as paradoxical vocal cord motion – in short, it’s a disorder that makes your vocal cords act wonky. It can affect not just your voice but your breathing, and it may explain a lot of the problems that I’ve been having post-bronchitis.

But it’s a never ending circle of illness. I had an allergic-like reaction to something in the reflux meds and while I’ve had slow progress on my voice, it’s still unpredictable. I’d start feeling great and then wham, I’d wake up one morning and be totally hoarse again.

Then last week I made yet another trip to the ER with incredible stomach pain. Diagnosis: inflammation of the stomach lining and a possible ulcer. For the last week, I’ve been barely able to eat while I wait for the meds to start working. I’m exhausted, mentally and physically.

I know, I know. I sound like some old lady whining about my aches and pains.

But it relates to the being nice project because it’s been difficult to look for ways to be kind to other people, because if I’m being honest, I’m feeling really needy. I need other people to be nice to meee.

This has all been more than a little frustrating. Sometimes, it was downright insulting.

When I thought I was having the reaction to the medication (my tongue and throat were growing increasingly numb) no one would believe it could be from the medicine because it was such an unusual reaction; the doctors told me to keep taking the pill. (I finally took myself off the pill and viola, symptoms cleared up. I’m on a new medicine now and am listening to my own body about whether or not I’m sensitive to it.)

People often ignored me or simply walked away while I was mid-sentence, because they didn’t realize I was still talking. When they heard me speak (often barely a squeak) people started giving me advice on where I was wrong with my diet or lifestyle (all of which they were completely uninformed or outright wrong about).  People rolled their eyes or sighed loudly when I had to refuse an invitation to go out, asking, “Yeesh, are you sick again?”

Trust me, if my situation is frustrating to you, imagine how frustrating it is to me.

There have been some high points over the last months, just simple things – my husband actually asking me how I felt that day (even though he knew from looking at me it had been yet another difficult day),  treats in the mail from  friends (who knew hand towels and hand soap could feel like winning the lottery?), free tickets to a show from my sister-in-law (even they were in exchange for me hyping up the show online, it forced me to get out of the house, which did me so much good; and I love the theater, even though I can’t afford to go). My mom and my daughter repeatedly asking me to go to lunch or breakfast, even when they know I probably can’t go (it’s nice to know I’m not forgotten).

But I’ve had a taste of what it means to be voiceless, literally and figuratively, and it’s maddening. Even when we’re looking for ways to be nice, we often miss their cries for help. Not even for big things, either – sometimes people simply need to be noticed, to know that their thoughts matter, even if they can’t actually give voice to them.

I’m not sure if any of this makes sense. I’m generally not good at asking for help, and frankly there isn’t anything really anyone can do for me, anyway. I have a diagnosis, we have a treatment plan, and it’s just going to take time for me to recover (and avoid picking up germs again). I just need to actively battle the crankiness every day, because the crankier I feel, the more negatively I see the world, which makes me crankier. And a little bit depressed.

But I want to take the lessons I’ve learned these last few months as I continue to try and be nicer in 2014. Being nice isn’t just about what we want to do for other people; it’s noticing what people need and doing that. It’s something I need to work at, now that I’ve been on the other side of the fence.



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