How do I explain my illness to people without bumming everyone out?

I have an unusual situation, and I was hoping you could help.  I normally am fairly adept at advising myself, but am clueless as to how to handle this. Up until about five months ago, I was the operator of a very successful retail business in a small-ish town.  I was also active in PTA and other community programs.  It would be safe to say that many people in town know me by name.

I have been diagnosed with a spinal disorder that has left me hobbled with pain and unable to work.  I am fortunate enough to be able to care for my kiddos and occasionally go out shopping, to dinner, etc.  The problem is, when people see me, they are very taken aback (I have put on weight from the medications, and use a cane).

My close friends and family know the details of my problem, but I don’t like reciting all the horrifying details to strangers…it depresses them and me.  I know people are concerned, and interested.  How do I handle these people?  What can I say when people ask what’s happened?

You should meet the town crier out for coffee and tell her. You know who she is—that one “friend” who, when she hears bad news, immediately excuses herself to go to the bathroom, takes her phone with her, and then hides in the toilet stall texting everyone she knows, “OMG did u know Jane has spinal disorder omg she’s chubby and has a cane.” She’ll definitely take care of it for you in about ninety seconds.

I know some people blurt this kind of stuff out on Facebook, or a group email, which I guess you could do, but I have a strict policy against discussing any actual life problems in a public forum like that, and it sounds like it’s not really your style either. The good side of a big announcement is that it makes quick work of your explanation and doesn’t require further discussion; the downside is that you seem somewhat attention-whorish, which should be avoided at all costs.

Since you seem pretty comfortable with your illness (or at least the fact that you have it), it’s best to address it immediately, with a quick, relaxed explanation, and then move on to another topic. “So nice to see you again! I must look different, since it’s been so long…I recently found out I have a degenerative disc disease, so I just got this cute little cane. Luckily it doesn’t interfere with my Crochet Club activities too much, so I’m still very busy with that. What have you been up to?” This way, you don’t have to force people to ask, and you don’t sound like you’re screaming out for sympathy (I HAVE A SPINAL DISORDER, WOE IS ME, you should have seen the terrible things they had to do to get a diagnosis…this one time they stuck a needle the size of a space shuttle in my ass…). You’ll just seem like the nice, polite, unassuming person that you are.

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