This site uses cookies to improve your experience and to provide services and advertising. By continuing to browse, you agree to the use of cookies described in our Cookies Policy. You may change your settings at any time but this may impact on the functionality of the site. To learn more see our Cookies Policy.
Dublin: 13 °C Thursday 9 April, 2020

Read Me: Why we shouldn’t harp on our health troubles, by Maeve Binchy

Let’s not endlessly discuss our health worries, wrote Maeve Binchy in 2008 – we should focus on enjoying life instead.

Maeve Binchy

Earlier this week, novelist and journalist Maeve Binchy died following a short illness at the age of 72. In this piece originally written in 2008, she describes why we shouldn’t let our health worries stop us enjoying life.

DOES TALKING ABOUT ill health, aches and pains and various alarming symptoms help at all?

I don’t think so.

I think it’s like a group of fishermen talking or golfers.

I tell you about the great salmon I wrestled with or the putt I sank on the fourth hole and I listen while you tell me how you got to the green in three shots or landed the perfect trout.

Companionable enough I suppose if this is your hobby but if you’re talking about bits of you breaking down, seizing up or falling off is there any great help to be found?

I don’t think a health problem shared is always halved, in fact I think it is sometimes a problem exaggerated. Suppose you mention to someone that you have a headache and they listen sympathetically nodding and encouraging you to describe the pain, whether it’s
sharp or nagging whether it’s all over or in one place. You are pleased by the attention of course but then the pleasure turns to alarm as they tell of someone in the office who had a similar headache who suddenly crashed to the ground unconscious and is still in a coma, or a brother-in-law who ignored exactly the same headache and discovered that an animal had burrowed into his skull.

This is good? Reassuring? A trouble halved?

I know someone who is so over sympathetic and gloomy that I am terrified of telling her that any part of me whatsoever is even slightly malfunctioning. One time I mentioned a hang nail and she knew someone who had to have their arm amputated because of something similar. Naturally anyone she knew with flu got pneumonia eventually, a rare hard-to-diagnose type, and she could hardly count the number of people whose jaws were broken during teeth extraction, something that happens so rarely it is statistically impossible that she could have known more than one.

‘Fraidy cat’

So am I some kind of stoic then?

Some brave person who doesn’t care about physical ailments?

Oh this is so far from the truth, I am basically a big fat fraidy cat, terrified that everything is much worse than it appears but I decided that this was no way to live and that the best policy to adopt was Enthusiastic Optimism. I have found this approach to be very helpful.

I also assume that medical men and women know what they are doing. They didn’t study for all those years, do endless exams, work unspeakable hours, get over their fear of blood and look into thousands of anxious faces without learning SOMETHING. And it’s more than certain that they want us to get better not worse, so I don’t approach a doctor with any kind of suspicion and criticism. I assume that we are on the same team with the same goal. It’s much more peaceful than striding in to the surgery armed with opinions from others, print outs from the internet and clippings from the newspapers about breakthroughs in medicine.

When you think about it we all have some area of expertise where we don’t appreciate being challenged and criticised. If we can drive a bus we don’t want advice from the passengers about which route to take, if we are waiting on tables we don’t need to be told by customers how to clear plates, or if we teach Latin at school we don’t welcome the parents telling us that we should ignore Virgil and Ovid and concentrate on grammar.

Doctors are human too, they want our help in identifying what’s wrong but not necessarily on how to treat it. I once read that you should bring in your medication on a visit to the doctor rather than relying on descriptions like Little Pink Ones and Big White Ones. They realise that we are fussed and confused when talking about our future and how much there may be of it, so they are happy if we have questions written down in advance and fill in the answers during the visit. Otherwise it could easily all pass in a red mist and we will not be able to remember whether the doctor said something was a matter of concern or a matter of no concern. We have all heard of the couple who thought the doctor had advised castration when he had actually suggested a catheter. Better by far to have your note book ready.

Watercooler anecdotage

And once the doctor has spoken does it help to share it with everyone at the water cooler, the supermarket queue or the bridge table?

Is the momentary wave of interest, sympathy and concern enough to compensate for the deluge of ill informed advice and anecdotage that will follow?

Might you not wish that you had stayed quiet, at least until your treatment had been decided and was underway? Or is this just me being devious and secretive?

It isn’t that I don’t trust people or appreciate their concern. I am very aware of goodwill and grateful for it but it gets diluted and thinned if it’s taken out too often. There are people you meet who have an Ailment of some type and you have to put on your Ailment face when they approach and ask how things are now.

And I know others who have been seriously ill who will not allow any but the briefest discussion of the illness. Instead they move seamlessly to the US Presidential election, carbon footprints, cooking with yeast or integrated education.

This I love. It means they have a life outside consultations, scans and changes in medications.

They have interests apart from wondering are they getting better or worse.

They have chosen to show this front rather than to give the day-by-day diagnosis model.

They have lost out on nothing by this attitude. We admire more than ever their fortitude, we do all we can to help them continue in this style. Its not a matter of forgetting that they have been through an ordeal, not just a weary relief that we will be spared the details.

Nodding dogs

What would they gain by telling us the symptoms and the treatments, we would put on sepulchral faces and behave like nodding dogs and then inevitably say the wrong thing.

I have had poorish health of late and remember so well my father’s wise advice: “’How are you?’ is a greeting, not a question.” Oh it is indeed.

We don’t want to KNOW how people are, we want to hear they are fine and still have most of their marbles.

We want to talk about the theatre festival, about politicians, about new restaurants, about the traffic, about the WB Yeats exhibition, about peoples families, their friends, their travels, their jobs, their retirement, about the odd scandal that has gloriously erupted from nowhere, about a place to buy fresh fish, about how to grow nice trouble free colourful shrubs in your garden. The middle-aged love to talk about these things. I certainly do. I HATE to talk about alien things like blood tests.

Being a bit poorly does not make you deaf.

I sometimes hear people saying “I hate to see her walking with a stick.” I long to say at the top of my voice that its not a bundle of laughs walking with a stick, but if it gets you from A to B, then that is what you use. I don’t shout this because people would think I had lost my sanity as well as everything else.

But what I love, and I am sure I am not alone in this, I really love the people who kindly back up their car to give me a lift, people who leave a nice firm chair at the ready in their sitting room, people who don’t wonder aloud to each other with stricken faces will I be able to manage the stairs.

I am deeply grateful to those who don’t want gory details and who offer no alternative solutions, to those who realise that our health troubles are only a part of life, not life itself.

This piece was originally written for the Irish Mail on Sunday. For more information on Maeve Binchy and her other work, visit her personal website at or her publisher Orion Books.

Read: ‘Warm and witty and wonderful’ – Worldwide tributes to Maeve Binchy>

Open thread: Which Maeve Binchy book do you recommend?>

  • Share on Facebook
  • Email this article

About the author:

Maeve Binchy

Read next: