You may think that being diagnosed with a chronic illness is where the problem ends. That physical ailments are the extent of all our troubles. The truth is, when you’re chronically ill you have to deal with equal amounts of skepticism and misguided ‘inspiration’ from your loved ones as well as total strangers who just can’t stop themselves from spouting their unwarranted opinions on your health issues. Whether they hold a dim view of those that claim to have them, insisting that there is a simple fix-all solution or wanting to exploit you to promote some new age spiritualist practice, for the most part, we just don’t want to hear it.
Here are ten things not to say to a chronically ill person:
1. “Have you tried yoga?” Have you tried setting yourself on fire? Because that is more or less how holding ridiculous poses makes me feel. Yes, exercise can help, but it’s not easy to commit to when you can’t guarantee neither your energy nor pain level. Excessive exercise can actually exacerbate issues, a light walk is often enough.
2. “Just push through it!” We are constantly ‘pushing through it’, dedicating every bit of energy to coping and performing tasks to the best of our ability. It takes up to five times more effort for us to take care of the basics like cooking and cleaning, let alone anything that’s actually supposed to be difficult. If we push ourselves past breaking point, we will break.
3. “Have you cut out gluten?” No. Because I don’t have a gluten intolerance. Believe it or not, an undiagnosed gluten intolerance is not the cause of every modern illness. In fact, my diet probably contains a lot less gluten than it did before I first became unwell. I make an effort to eat healthier, but I see no benefit in deliberately avoiding something, that as far as I’m aware, is not causing any problems for me.
4. “I’m also tired/in pain sometimes…” They say that to understand chronic fatigue, a ‘normal’ person would have to be awake for 36 hours straight. Paracetamol does little or nothing for chronic pain disorders. If you can solve your issue with a coffee, nap or over-the-counter painkiller, then it’s not the same thing.
5. “I thought only old people got that.” Well, surprise! Youths are susceptible to many illnesses too. I actually dropped out of a support group after a man kept militantly proclaiming that he didn’t believe I could have the same experience as him at my age, despite the specialists informing him that it is not an age-specific ailment. If anybody is going to invalidate my illness, it’s going to be a professional.
6. “I know somebody with that and they’re…’ Teaching pilates classes? Unable to leave the house? We may be of the same species, but we are all still very different in how we are affected by chronic illness. Some people may be coping better or worse, but that doesn’t mean that others aren’t trying as hard or are faking.
7. “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” This is an incredibly misguided attempt at comfort or empowerment. I’d be much happier to believe I became ill through random chance, genetics or by my own error than to believe it was purposefully inflicted upon me because my suffering is all a part of a big plot. Go away.
8. “When you get better, we’ll do X!” I’m not going to get better. Sorry. You have to take the risk that I might not be fully functioning on the day you want me to be. It’s the same risk I have to take when running errands and going to work. But please understand that still having a life is equally as important to me as ensuring my well-being and invite me to do stuff!
9. “Can’t you get benefits so you don’t need to work?” Cute. If only it was that easy. Despite how the media might make it sound, getting benefits is not straightforward. Evidence and a diagnosis guarantees you nothing, it’s a points-based system. Despite how much pain I’m in, I can still more or less walk around and hold a conversation, therefore I don’t qualify. Also, you lose credibility just for showing up to the assessment. Yes, seriously.
10. “Hey, at least it’s not cancer!” You’re right, it could be worse and I am constantly aware of that. So could any bad situation, if you have the imagination for it. My illness won’t kill me, but it does affect me on a daily basis. I try to avoid a self-pitying attitude, but I do need to take it seriously and look after myself. And sometimes, I just need to moan about it.