Struggle to Understand

My Roommate Got Sick and Now She Gets it

Feeling is such a strange thing. When we  feel something, it grips us, ensnares us in some messy, seemingly inescapable, labyrinth-like web. But when we are detached, outside of that realm of feeling—when we do not feel something directly—it is hard to really understand what someone feels, or how someone feels, even if we’ve felt it before. This is one of the biggest issues with Allergies that do not produce external, visible reactions.

I can tell you that my stomach hurts when I digest gluten. What do you have then? You have information: plain, simple, and rational. And feeling—well feeling is anything but plain, anything but simple, and anything but rational. This becomes even more complex when you factor in years of no allergies.

You’ll believe me when I tell you that my stomach hurts when I digest gluten. But if you’ve known me long enough and don’t live with me, you’ll be skeptical. I won’t blame you when you ask: “But how much does it hurt?” A lot. “Because, you know, you’ve been eating bread and pasta and all that stuff all of your life. Are you sure it’s gluten because it’s very strange that it never hurt before.” You’re telling me. I know. I know it’s strange, but it does hurt and it is gluten and can we just go somewhere that has gluten-free options…?

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My roommate is a friend from high school. So she’s known me for a long time. She knew me pre-allergy. She doesn’t ask me too many questions. When she does, they’re sincere, filled with an attempt to understand. I think she thought that did understand. She’ll ask if I want this or that and supply me with a sympathetic “Oh…,” when I remind her that I can’t have this or that. When she remembers, she’ll even look up a list of restaurants or products that I can go to, or use. But she never felt the pain—never understood that the “Oh…,” does nothing for me. And then she got sick.

We still don’t know what caused it, but we ate in the cafeteria last week and by the time we came back, she wasn’t feeling well. The next day, it got worse. She described it as: “A heavy uncomfortable rock sitting at the bottom of your stomach, hurting.” I understood that. It’s a perfect description of how my stomach hurts if I digest gluten. In my case, that rock can stay—weighing down the pit of my stomach, surrounded by air, uncomfortably—for days.

When I explained this to her—now that she was feeling it—the “Oh…” became “My gosh, I’m so sorry… I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.” Believe me, neither would I. That’s when I knew that she understood, because “Oh…” is what we say when we don’t—when we can’t—understand. Thankfully, her pain only lingered for two days.

It’s not about needing someone else to feel the pain. But it did get me thinking about how we feel and how we understand. You don’t have to feel something to be sympathetic. The “Oh…” will do just fine. Just know that it’s more than that—know that you can’t understand it (and that that’s okay). A soothing word or two and a cup of tea will do wonders, because just as we can feel pain, we can feel better with kindness and love.

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