Look for Silver Linings

Dr. Sue Gill personally explores how we deal with suffering, grief, betrayal, and hope.

I recently got to know a remarkable young woman through an online venue whom I will call Sarah. She was critically ill after being bitten by a tick, and her doctors were struggling to stop the infection that was damaging her heart and nervous system. This 19-year-old girl had quickly gone from healthy, active, and vibrant to paralyzed from the waist down, on a ventilator because of lung damage, and requiring 24-hour care in the ICU.

As I corresponded with her, I really came to admire Sarah. She had a remarkable ability to hold off the fear and grief that I’d expect in someone so ill, along with this inspiring ability to find something positive in her situation. She told me, “Every day is Thanksgiving for me, because I have so much to be grateful for. I have my family right here with me, I have the use of my arms, and I have good doctors who are helping me.”

Sarah’s attitude was especially inspiring to me because I was struggling at the time to find much to be positive about. I was struggling with some things physically, and I didn’t know if I would get better. I felt isolated. So each time I got an e-mail from this girl in an ICU thousands of miles from me, filled with a beautiful mix of hope and realism, gratitude and grief, I felt inspired. I wished that I could somehow wear her attitude on my own heart, like a borrowed set of clothes. I wanted to be like her.

It was a very sad day when I opened my e-mail to find a message from Sarah’s sister. Sarah died from sepsis. Help came too late for her. She was gone.

My grief was intense. Although I had never met this young woman, her approach to life was deeply inspiring to me. Her spirit so embodied the outlook I want to have, and she was able to do this in the midst of unbelievable suffering. I wanted Sarah’s life to mean something, even though it was way too short. I decided to do my best to emulate her spirit, to find ways to be grateful in all situations, to find something, anything, to be grateful for every day. To avoid bitterness about the things in life that are unfair. To find ways to live, no matter what the circumstances.

Around the time I stopped crying every day about Sarah’s death, I got another e-mail. A mutual acquaintance regretted to inform me that “Sarah” was a hoax. The whole story was a lie. There never was a Sarah. It was all crafted by a troubled college student who made up the whole sick-and-dying-sister story to get sympathy for herself.

I was left reeling after going from grief, inspiration, and empathy for “Sarah’s” family to anger, outrage, and hurt. I felt completely untethered. To go from inspiration to betrayal by the same person was more than I could take in.

So here I sit, just a few days after learning that there never was a Sarah. I am facing a choice. I can put a frame around this experience and hang it on the wall with the title: “Remember Always. People Cannot Be Trusted. They Will Betray You.”

I have considered that option. But you know what? I really got to like the me I was when I was trying to be more like “Sarah.” On days when I felt sick and in pain and exhausted, I really liked being able to genuinely say, “Wow, this is scary, and I am so grateful that I have the use of my arms and legs. And I can eat. And I can breathe.”

In losing the myth of “Sarah,” something remarkable is taking place in the online venue where “Sarah” was a member. People are expressing anger and compassion, outrage and empathy, and are seeking justice toward the perpetrator of the hoax. They are going out of their way to provide support toward those who were most taken in by the hoax. I see the spirit that I so admired in “Sarah” expressing itself through this group of people who were there all along. I just had not been open to it before the whole “Sarah” story blew up.

I think that people of the queer community are especially vulnerable to experiencing the kind of betrayal that is part of the “Sarah” story.

Because we often carry an invisible difference, there is a higher risk for thinking people are accepting when they are not, or assuming people may be rejecting when they are actually quite accepting.

I still feel shocked every time I am with a group of lesbians who make a transphobic comment. Really, people, do I have to do trans* 101 with you, too? I am also still shocked every time I’m with a religiously conservative person who is LGBTQ affirming. And I am still very confused by the people who are publicly anti-gay everything socially, but personally accepting.

People are not always who they appear to be in online relationships and in real life. The next time I am betrayed, and the next time you are betrayed, how do we want to respond? It is going to happen. For me, I want “Sarah’s” story to help me to be brave enough to risk connection, to weather betrayal, and to choose to find something positive about every circumstance.

Sue and her partner, Sheri, have lived in Madison since 2000. They keep busy with their two dogs, Frankie and Maslow. Sue is a psychologist in private practice and can be found online at www.madisontherapy.com.