About six years ago, I started experiencing debilitating vertigo and tinnitus. I couldn’t get out of bed because it felt like I was riding the teacups at Disneyland. After countless trips to neurologists, ENTs and more specialists than I can remember, I was diagnosed with a vestibular disorder called Ménière’s disease. Basically, it’s an inner ear disorder that causes 24/7 tinnitus (ear ringing), vertigo and hearing loss. Usually, when someone has Ménière’s disease, they have it in only one ear, but I guess I’m just lucky because I had it in both. The audiologist who tested me told me it was the worst case she’d ever seen. It’s chronic, which means there’s no cure and there’s no medication that helps it.
Then a couple of years ago, I was diagnosed with another chronic illness, Crohn’s disease. While my Ménière’s disease can be debilitating, it is never painful. Crohn’s disease is painful. The thing about chronic illness is it never goes away. There are things you can do to manage it, but it will never be “cured.” When someone has a broken bone or a “visible” illness like cancer, it’s easier for people to be sympathetic and understanding. But chronic illnesses tend to be silent and invisible, which often make it harder for those not experiencing them to understand. So if you have a chronic illness and can relate, you probably know what does and doesn’t help when you’re having a flare-up. If you don’t, I want to share some tips for supporting your friends when they aren’t feeling their best.
We’re already missing out on all the fun anyway, so don’t ghost them. Even if you aren’t sure what to say or what they need, social support goes along way. Check in on them, send pictures and let them know you’re thinking of them. It’s pretty isolating to be too sick to attend a function and then see all the fun you’re missing out on via IG Stories. FaceTime is a beautiful thing when you are too sick to get out of the house.
For the love of god, if your friends tell you they have a chronic disease, don’t ask them if they have “tried cutting out gluten.” Even though you can’t see it, having a chronic illness feels horrible, so you can guarantee if there’s a potential remedy, we’ve tried it. But offering solutions to someone else’s illness that you have no personal experience with is patronizing, so just don’t.
Rely on clichés
Saying things like “it could be worse,” “you don’t look sick” or “just stay positive” might be said with good intentions, but they aren’t really helpful. If you can’t think of anything to say, ask questions. Ask your friends how you can support them or what they need in that moment.
Do your research
If these friends are really close to you, take the time to do a little research on what they’ve been diagnosed with. It will help you not only understand a bit about what they are feeling, but your friends will likely appreciate the gesture that you took the time.
A lot of the time when you have a chronic illness, you’re so used to feeling like shit all the time that you just don’t bother bringing it up anymore. I even do this with my own husband. I think it’s because we feel like we don’t want to be complaining all the time, but it’s also cathartic to talk about it. Let them vent as much as they want, or don’t want. Just having someone who is truly interested and curious about how you’re doing is uplifting on its own.
Ask instead of assume
You may think you know what someone needs when they aren’t feeling well, but when in doubt, ask. What do you need? What can I do? What would be helpful? These are great questions to ask friends with a chronic illness. Often if you ask someone “do you need anything?” they’ll decline out of politeness. Let them know you’re going to help them and aren’t just offering to be polite. Instead of asking if they need anything, try asking “how’s your pain level? I’m heading to the drugstore today, can I get you any ibuprofen or heating pads?” The biggest benefit here is that you will actually be helping your friends in the way they need it most.
Don’t give up on them
When you have a chronic illness, you tend to cancel a lot of plans. As the friend who doesn’t have the same health issues, this can be frustrating and make you feel like you’re being “flaked on.” But try to reframe that mindset. Your friend doesn’t want to be stuck in the house. Your friend doesn’t want to cancel plans. These friends truthfully just can’t get their body to cooperate. Don’t give up on them. They’re in this for the long haul, so knowing they have your lifelong support and friendship is the most valuable gift you can give them.
main + featured image by Bessie Lacap.
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