What’s your ‘being sick’ style?

by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters


Here at Heart Sisters World Headquarters, it has come to my attention that there seems to be a divide between two types of recuperation styles when women get sick.  I don’t mean urgent/call 911/another-freakin’-heart-attack kind of sick, but more like your garden variety feeling-like-hell when you’re knocked flat in bed with a flu, a cold, or recovering from a bad flare of chronic illness symptoms.

The two most common responses from my Heart Sisters blog readers (always a goldmine of data!) are these:

  1. Leave me alone:  I’m sick! I feel awful. I look worse. I want to hide under the covers with the lights off and not have to talk to anybody. I’ll come out when I’m ready.
  2. Take care of me:  I’m sick! I just need a little TLC. Can you please fluff my pillows/bring me some tea/run me a nice bath/get a cold cloth for my forehead?

Which category fits you best when you’re feeling sick?  Here’s how my readers responded to my poll:

Either recuperation preference is absolutely correct for you. It’s the expectations from others that often get in the way, because we tend to treat those who are under the weather the same way we would like to be treated when we’re feeling sick, and we also tend to expect precisely that kind of specific care from others around us.

Here’s an example.  I once heard the late author Dr. Leo Buscaglia (often known as “Dr. Love”) tell a story to his conference audience about how he grew up equating caregiving with love. 

When he was a little boy, he told us, his own mother was cold and distant – except when he was sick. During those times, she would sit at his bedside, stroke his head, spoon-feed him hot soup, fuss over his fever and become the kind of caring mother she rarely was when he was healthy. Those were the only times he remembers feeling truly cared for by his mother. Sometimes, he admitted, he even feigned illness or injury in order to get a hug or a gentle word from her – and it always worked. And when others he cared about became ill, he fussed over them, too, just as his mother used to fuss over him.

But when Dr. Buscaglia got married, he was shocked by his wonderful new wife’s behaviour toward him whenever he got sick.

Instead of stroking his feverish brow like she was supposed to do, she seemed to have zero tolerance for his sickly ways.  She didn’t hover over his sickbed, didn’t offer to bring him special things, didn’t have a shred of sympathy for his moaning, and in fact, she mostly left him all alone – until he felt well enough to be up and around again, at which time she resumed being her usual kind and loving self.

He gradually learned that “Leave Me Alone!” was her own personal preference whenever SHE felt sick. If he tried to fuss over her during those times, she’d often react with hostility and annoyance as she hid away from him under the covers until she felt better again. She simply needed to hibernate, rest, and be quietly alone to recuperate. 

Trouble is, as Dr. Leo discovered, we have to understand that not everybody expects or offers the same care we’d prefer during an illness.

As Toni Bernhard, author of the excellent book about chronic illness called How to Be Sick, wrote:

“Remember that people’s abilities or lack thereof to be good caregivers are not about you; they reflect their own life history and perhaps their own fears about illness. I used to get upset when people didn’t behave the way I thought they should. Then I realized that getting upset about it only made me feel worse.

“I feel better emotionally when I graciously accept whatever support is offered and let the rest go, including my views about how people should act.”

Q:  As either a caregiver or a patient, have you experienced a difference in ‘being sick’ styles?

NOTE FROM CAROLYN:   I wrote much more about expectations when we (or others) are sick in my book, A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease . You can ask for it at your local library or favourite bookshop, or order it online (paperback, hardcover or e-book) at Amazon, or order it directly from my publisher, Johns Hopkins University Press (use their code HTWN to save 20% off the list price).

See also:

Convalescence: the forgotten phase of illness recovery

Handling the homecoming blues

Study: “91% discharged from hospital without care plan”

Cardiac care for the whole patient – not just the heart

“We are all patients.” No, you’re not.

Where’s the “survivorship” model for heart patients?

13 thoughts on “What’s your ‘being sick’ style?

  1. I’m mostly the “I’m sick, leave me alone” person. I’ve always been a highly independent person, and personal hygiene and grooming are things that I always wanted to handle on my own, no matter how hard the struggle.

    I have the introvert thing when I am sick also, that I do not want others to “see me” in a sickly condition. I like things around me super clean and uncluttered when I am not feeling well. When I am feeling better, I can let things go a bit, but when sick, no… if I have to inconvenience myself to keep things “in order” I will do so, not around people, but behind the scenes to feel like something in my life is “in control”.

    Sickness makes me feel “out of control” and “traveling uncharted territory”. I don’t like the instability of the feeling. However, when it comes to my husband, or my children’s illnesses, I am right there for them, if they need me, and of course, when the children were growing up, I did anything and everything I could for them, in a hands on, nurturing way.

    I never made “them” feel like that simply because they were suffering from an illness, that there was anything wrong with that. I don’t think there is anything particularly wrong with myself having one, I just don’t like to be seen if I am not able to do things, or if I’m not clean enough hygienically, etc. It’s a hangup. It’s my hangup.


  2. Great article. I remember a boyfriend I judged harshly when he didn’t offer to get me food or water when I was sick! When he was sick he went to sleep until he got better–I wish I could do that!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Peggy, your comment makes me wonder why it is that these two extremes of ‘being sick’ preferences so often seem to end up with each other? I’m guessing that two ‘leave me alone’ types like your ex would understand each other’s preferences completely, with few expectations that there’s any other way to be…


  3. I had a tendency to take care of my family so I could get them well faster and off to their job or school. Okay I will say it – out of my hair especially if they are whiny. For me I take care of myself for the most part. I certainly would depend on my daughter more than my husband or son to help me. Nice well meaning people but they just don’t get it, I’m afraid.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Michelle for telling it like it is! Many years ago, my little brother was recuperating from getting his tonsils out, lying on the living room couch (this was in the 60s when EVERY kid had to get their tonsils out, apparently!) Tucked in with blankets and pillows and ice chips and TV cartoons, my mother gave him a pot lid and a wooden spoon so he could alert my mom and rest his sore throat if he needed to call her in the next room to bring him something. After the 4th or 5th BANG-BANG-BANG-BANG, however, she took both of them away pretty quick! I think he made a record-setting speedy recovery after that… 😉


  4. Other: stiff upper lip, and pretend I’m fine. My mother, who never had a cramp in her life, may have set the pattern. I am the eldest of five daughters, and was expected to help, not need help. I had horrible cramps – she pooh-poohed them.

    I have had CFS – which cost me my career as a physicist – for 27+ years. I have carried on, done what I can for all that time. I don’t get acknowledgement, much less attention, from being sick.

    My husband was a rock during all this – but not a fusser at all. If I need something, I ask for it. When he’s sick, he just goes to bed. We’re quiet people.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I hear ya, Alicia! My own mother was a similar no-nonsense, just-get-on-with-it kind of person. With five children in our family, and a working farm to manage, she didn’t have the “luxury” of taking a sick day off in bed!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I don’t think it’s either or, black or white. My personal feeling is I want to know someone cares, but I don’t want hovering. I’m grateful if someone comes to check on me and feel abandoned if no one does; but I don’t want someone in constant attendance, spoon-feeding me or fluffing my pillow.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Even in hospital after surgery, I’ve wanted my husband to go home. I told him after an 11 hr surgery, “go on so you can take care of the dog,” which the nurses thought was funny. He fusses too much & acts too worried. Of course I needed some help at home, & oddly enough, that’s when he drops the ball a bit. He’ll bring me food & all, but he doesn’t do any of the things that I do around the house, so things get messy.

    When he is sick, he’s pretty stoic & I offer anything he needs. But afterwards, he will talk about his affliction for years, & constantly repeat every detail about his pain, swelling, symptom, etc. He even does that with a routine cut or scrape. So I can’t figure out what his childhood sickbed was like.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Joyce – I guess there’s such a thing as TOO MUCH fussing about. I have a whole chapter in my new book called “Onedownmanship: You Think YOU Have Pain?” in which I quote my Santa Barbara friend Dave who calls this need to go on and on about one’s medical woes as “the organ recital”!


  7. Wow, wish I’d seen this when I was newly married (34 years ago)! I always fuss over my husband when he is sick, but he never even asks me how I’m feeling when I’m sick and mostly leaves me alone. Has caused some real hurt feelings over the years, but now I know that’s just how he is and he really does care. I’ll never forget the look of shock and concern on his face when I told him the cardiologist wanted me to have a cath done (when I got my first stent). And he was there through the births of 3 babies, even watched them stitch me up for the c-section (nothing bothers him that way).

    On the other hand, after his car accident I was his caregiver for months while he recuperated from a broken femur and hip. Exhausting both physically and emotionally for a person who fusses over sick people, and he was kind of oblivious to my feelings (actually he was pretty drugged up for a lot of it!). One day he looked at me with a sudden insight and said, “You know, I think this has been harder on you than it has been on me.” DUH!!! 8^)

    For the survey I put “other” because it’s really a mix for me. Sometimes I just want to be left alone but I do want to know people care about me when I’m sick. I do tend to fuss over others but sometimes feel like others (ie, family) just take me for granted. Totally depends on the situation.

    Liked by 1 person

Your opinion matters. What do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s