Chronic illness support group talks through difficulties of illness for Routt County men
March 10, 2019
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — In general, Stuart Handloff said, "Guys don't like to talk."
But, once a month, a small group of men get together to talk — about their grandkids, their relationships, their golf game or remodeling the bathroom. And, they talk about the one thing they all have in common: chronic illness.
The group meets at 10 a.m. on the third Thursday of every month at the UCHealth Jan Bishop Cancer Center.
Most have cancer, but Sara Ross, a licensed social worker and counselor, is working to reach men facing other chronic illnesses like Handloff, who has congestive heart failure.
Diagnosed in 2016, Handloff remains active. He's lived in Steamboat Springs for 46 years and has always spent a lot of time outdoors and been involved in the community. At 68, he's an avid cross-country skier and the Artistic Director of the Piknik Theatre Festival.
But these days, Handloff has to be cautious. His heart function has decreased to about half of what it was.
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He's been attending the men's support group for about a year.
"There aren't a lot of opportunities for men to connect with other men, especially on deeper issues," said Ross, moderator of the group.
Handloff said he's found friends and family often "don't want to hear that you are chronically ill — they don't want the details."
When men are facing difficult struggles, Ross said, it's “their inclination not to want to burden other people. And, to not be around other people. But, there's something really powerful about being able to connect to other people and to grieve together."
The support group provides "a space where we can have sharing and support," Handloff said. It's also a space where they don't have to talk about their illness at all.
They do at times talk about their anger, sadness and their sadness for their family members, Ross said. "But, we laugh a lot, too."
Handloff admits he was hesitant at first about going to the sessions. "This is a lot of human misery," he initially thought. He was dealing with plenty of his own and wondered if he really needed to listen to other people's pain.
"But, I realized it was an opportunity for me to open up — to spread some of my grief and carry some of the load, too.”
Ross said, in her experience with support groups, it comes more naturally for women to talk about their feelings, and women typically have their support systems established. Men have backing in their lives, Ross said, "but they don't have other men who are going through what they are going through."
However, it’s not a "pity party," Handloff said. "It's an opportunity to get out of the house and talk to people who understand what you are going through. And have fun doing it. We tell fun stories. There's a lot of laughing."
It is a space in which you aren't treated different or singled out because of your illness, Handloff said. And, it is refreshing to be among people who see you as the person beyond the illness "and not have to deal with false cheer and phony prognostications."
Whether spoken or unspoken, they all share "an insight into the human condition and are able to feel what's important and who's important — in a way healthy people take for granted."
There is a lot of denial out there, Handloff said, especially among men. The group "allows the men to get through that denial."
Other people tend to say "’no, you aren't going to die from that disease,'" Handloff said. "But yes, we are. And some sooner than others."
They've lost two members in the past two years, he said, and one very recently.
At the February meeting, the first after the loss, the group shared some thoughts and memories about the man who died. They signed a card for his widow. "It was sad but therapeutic," Handloff said. "It gave us a sense of closure."
Both Handloff and Ross encourage other men facing chronic illness to join.
Even if just once.
"Here is a safe space for you, where people are not going to judge, and you can talk about whatever you want — your illness or not," Handloff said. "It's an environment that, at least for an hour, is fun and joyful and free of the stigma — whether real or imagined — that you carry around."
Ross said she also benefits from the monthly gathering and leaves the sessions each time a better, more aware person. "I love these guys," she said.
The group, said Handloff, is a chance for connection and support, among people with the "ability to find humor and lightness in a situation that is anything but."
Handloff said he likes the idea of thinking of grief not as something you can necessarily "get through" but, rather, focusing on "how you build more life around it.” And that, he said, “allows you to carry on."
The next meeting is March 21. Ross also leads a support group for women and for caregivers. For more information, contact Ross at 970-875-2764 or firstname.lastname@example.org.