An unwelcome guest seeking permanent residence in your home.
You’ve always treated your body as a temple, yet this guest has defiled your temple with ease.
He interrupts your life.
He steals your independence.
He drains your bank account.
If you’re one of the lucky ones, he makes his presence scarcely known after a while. Or if you’re among the rare few, he exits, never to return again.
Who is “he”? Chronic illness and he is (literally) a major pain.
Life with a chronic illness is a constant and lonely battle. Every day, you fight to manage your symptoms. Every day, you fight for some semblance of normalcy. You desire to keep up with your peers and when you don’t, you feel deflated.
This is what life is like for millions of people across the world.
And it comes in an endless number of shapes and forms — cancer, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, mental illness — their personalities differ yet they all pack a life-changing punch.
Often, their symptoms are largely invisible to those other than their victims. That’s the greatest part of the struggle.
How can you successfully manage the pain and improve your quality of life when faced with “it’s all in your head” or “you look fine to me”?
It’s near impossible.
That’s why we need to see chronic illness for what it is and talk about it. Especially now.
We’re in the midst of a global health pandemic fighting a common enemy — COVID-19. This enemy is deathly contagious and no respecter of persons. That’s not even the scary part.
The scary part is the long-term effects. In many patients, COVID-19 has triggered myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS), a debilitating chronic condition that can leave a person bedridden for weeks.
This is no joke! For a subject as heavy as chronic illnesses for which you need to tread lightly, it’s easiest to avoid it altogether. Rather than pretend it doesn't exist, let’s talk about it.
By talking, we empower those who suffer from a chronic illness to walk through it. Being heard and understood is a powerful step toward healing.
So, how do you talk about it?
Less is more
There’s nothing more tempting than to fill an awkward silence or situation with many words to put yourself at ease. Resist the temptation!
In someone else’s pain and suffering, less is more. Your presence is more powerful than your words.
When you do speak, say things like:
“How are you feeling right now?”
“What can I do to help ease the pain?”
“Describe what you’re experiencing, I’m here to listen.”
“I can’t imagine what you’re going through but know that I’m here for you.”
Be ready to hear their answer, even if you don’t like the sound of it. Be patient to listen to their response, even if you don’t have time for it. What they’re experiencing is not easily expressed in a few words.
On my worst days, the last thing I wanted was to have a conversation. On the days that I could, I was more comforted by these words than (well-meaning) advice on what I should do to help with the healing process.
Choose your words carefully.
If you have someone in your world who has shared some details of their chronic illness with you, treat that information with honour and respect. Show curiosity.
Research their illness so you have an idea of what they’re going through. This will help you empathise the next time you have a conversation. You’ll be positioned to ask the right questions and notice any red flags.
Be wise with this information. Don’t use it as an excuse to offer your unsolicited advice or an opportunity to regurgitate all you’ve learned about their illness. Nobody likes a know-it-all, just keep it to yourself until asked.
Find a balance
We don’t want your pity; we want your perception.
Don’t treat a person with chronic illness differently because of their condition. It’s only a reminder of what they’ve lost. Remember, they’re still the same person (in soul and spirit) and deserve to be treated that way.
Even so, they’re dealing with significant changes to their mind and body. This means their cognitive function and physical mobility may be hindered. Acknowledge it for what it is and consider how they might respond to certain circumstances.
It’s all about balance. To find it, just ask.
Chronic illness doesn’t have to be uncomfortable; it just needs to be talked about.