Keeping up appearances

Related: On standing up, but not for myself.

On Friday last, there was a period of six or so hours during which there was quite a lot of pain in my right arm. Just about everything from my little finger to my upper arm was aching or full of shooting pains or some such.

Unfortunately, that afternoon I had to meet someone new in a professional setting, and etiquette in this culture required that I shake her hand. On the way over, I thought about what I would do. Of course, I could always just refuse. I imagined saying, ‘sorry, I can’t, my right arm’s in quite a lot of pain.’

Of course, when I got there, she held out her hand and I shook it. I cradled my arm afterwards and made pain faces when she had her back turned and berated myself for not taking care of myself.

And as totally ridiculous as it seems to me, looking back, my decision simultaneously makes absolute sense. Because that’s the kind of stigma disabled people face. I actually had to consider whether I preferred physical pain or a probable moment of awkwardness, perhaps a bad reaction. More than that, I chose the former. Because all those memories of ‘what’s wrong with you?’ or losing status or having my disability loudly referred to were just more painful than that pain that gripped my arm for so many hours.

It was better to adhere to social convention.

9 thoughts on “Keeping up appearances

  1. I can relate to this *so* much.

    I have trouble focusing on people – it really hurts – but when it comes down to it, in a social situation, I’d rather put myself through extreme pain than not make eye contact. Because it avoids embarrassment.

    It sucks.

  2. This is resonant for me.

    I spent an hour on the phone yesterday with my therapist coaching me so that I would describe the symptoms of my current chronic-virus flareup to my doctor rather than pretending that everything was OK.

  3. My grandmother, on her painful days, will wear a sling on her right arm so that she can avoid shaking hands without awkwardness.

    I don’t know if that will work for you, but I’m putting it out there.

  4. This post – and the one about standing on public transport – really, really strikes a chord with me. I have so many problems with handshakes, and not just for pain reasons but for anxiety reasons too. I can’t do handshakes properly, I worry about the choreography of it all, the strength behind the handshake, and so forth — and it’s actually a definite source of stress when I’m at work or in an interview situation. I also really resent handshakes because they’re such a meaningless social ritual and why can’t we just choose to forgo it without negative repercussions from employers and so forth?

    Also, it was highly embarrassing back when my hands were covered with a pretty visible skin disease — it isn’t as immediately visible now, but there are still patches of it there and I have having my hands exposed.

    Thanks for writing this.

  5. I’ve seen people shake with the left hand due to injury or arthritis or whatever. I don’t know if it bothers the shake-ees or not, but it seems socially acceptable to me anyway.

  6. Yeah, The White Lady, I’ll do the same. It’ll take a lot of mental and emotional energy to get through a conversation looking at the person I’m talking with. It’s so hard to say anything like “I hope you won’t think I’m ignoring you or anything; I need to not look at you while we talk. Eye contact is difficult and uncomfortable for me.” ’cause that so often leads to a questions about why and it’s just aaagh.

  7. Ahh the old “I have to shake your hand but my hand/wrist/arm hurts but I don’t want to be rude but it’s gonna hurt but it’s professional to shake hands….” dilemma!

    I have a chronic injury in my right hand/wrist, and I have that recording play through my head whenever I have a flare up and am in pain. If I’m in my brace, then it’s not a problem, people often say “Oh I won’t shake your sore hand there.” but when I’m not in the brace I struggle with trying not to be rude/be professional but also go easy on my painful hand/wrist. It looks fine, I seem fine… but it’s hurting underneath that.

    Sometimes I just have to say “I won’t shake your hand, I’ve got a wrist injury, but it’s nice to meet you.” and too bad if someone thinks it’s rude and deal with the questions, which I do find intrusive. But sometimes I just put the brace on so I don’t have to cross that bridge.

  8. My instinct is to always stretch my left hand out ’cause I’m left handed. I always wish bows were back in fashion.

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