February 19, 2013

Hope you're better soon and feeling really greatI have a range of experiences of being unwell and have experienced a range of responses from others to that unwellness. When somebody contracts a short illness, is temporarily injured or has surgery, society has set ideas about how to respond – namely, send a ‘Get Well’ card.

I’ve had chronic health problems (both physical and mental) for many years, yet it wasn’t until recently that I received a card of this nature. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been surrounded by supportive friends and family, simply that it had never occurred to them to send me something.

Last year this changed when I was admitted to an eating disorders’ ward with Anorexia Nervosa. This was the first time I had been admitted to hospital and, in spite of how open I had tried to be about my physical and mental health before, this was the first time I looked as unwell as I felt. The visible effects of anorexia combined with long term hospital treatment created a tangible picture of illness for others to respond to. In my mind, this was why I received my first ever set of ‘Get Well’ cards.

The post I received in hospital was invaluable

The post I received in hospital was invaluable. Close friends and family sent me regular short letters. Another few cards were sent from other people who had experienced hospital stays or eating disorders, and could offer words of encouragement. I even received a postcard from somebody who I had never met before, but who had seen my posts on twitter and wanted to make me smile.

I think the card that touched me the most, however, was one signed by a group of friends I grew up with. These friends had always been outwardly sympathetic of my health issues but never in the ten years preceding had I received a physical token of this compassion. In the card they said I was missed, that I needed to get better, and that they loved me – their words made me feel like a human being rather than an eating disorder. It meant the world. Those cards stayed on my hospital wall throughout my inpatient stay, and provided a lift that I could revisit whenever I wanted.

What was important was that people cared

The ‘Get Well’ cards themselves were generic. Likewise, if anybody had read the personalised messages in the cards, I don’t think they would have guessed they were written to somebody in the midst of a mental health crisis. What was important was the knowledge that people cared, as was being treated with the same concern as I would have been with a physical illness.

In fact, I was treated with more concern than I have been with a physical illness, which makes me think that the visibility and/or pattern of an illness affects the way people feel able to respond to it, rather than merely whether it is mental or physical. It was as if my admission to hospital was the cue that people needed in order to buy a card and send it – otherwise, how would they have known when the right time was to act?

It seems insensitive to wish someone a 'speedy recovery'

It would be brilliant if the greetings card industry branched out in its messages on ‘Get Well’ cards. It seems insensitive to wish somebody a ‘speedy recovery’, if recovery will be slow, difficult or even unlikely. To say ‘get better soon’ could be inappropriate if the illness is chronic or fluctuating in nature. In an ideal world, there would be more pre-printed cards with messages such as “I’m sorry things are rubbish, but I’m here for you”.

Ultimately though, having ones feelings acknowledged, and being offered support in a non-pressured way is vital when things are hard in life, regardless of the cause. After all, people don’t send a ‘get well soon’ card to somebody with a broken arm in the genuine belief that it will help to mend their bones – people send them to provide emotional support. I see no reason why the same gesture should not be extended to those with mental health problems.

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