As someone with a
chronic health condition, I know that living with one is a challenge to begin with. Your ability to function is often severely compromised, and you may not know if or when things will ever improve. On top of all that, many people with chronic illnesses and pain have to deal with insensitive comments from others.
"Unknowingly, our loved ones and friends infantilize us and make us feel like infants incapable of handling our lives... and, in reality, they don't know what our health issues and pain do to us," Kirsten Schultz, founder of
Chronic Sex, tells Bustle. "While not a lot on their own, as singular comments, these microaggressions add up. Messages that portray people with a chronic illness or disability as pitiful or evil pervade society from movies to the news and more. Sadly, the stress and frustration from encountering these ideas everywhere we look can worsen our physical and mental health. It's a large part of why we may get frustrated more easily or snap back at a well-meaning suggestion."
Want to support someone with a chronic health condition, or at least avoid making matters worse? Here are some things not to say to them.
"You Should [Commonly Circulated Piece Of Health Advice]"
If you want to help a loved one with a chronic health issue find treatment, you can support them by doing research. Read about the condition online and talk to people who are experts on it or have it. But don't blurt out the same cliché advice they've likely already heard a million times. People with digestive issues have already considered every fad diet and cleanse out there.
Those with bladder issues have already been told to do kegels and drink cranberry juice. Often, these supposed treatments actually do more harm than good.
"Ideally, we'd be able to work with our health team to take the best care of ourselves possible — and have friends or loved ones trust that we've got it together," says Schultz. "Instead, we are forced to entertain false cures and well-meaning suggestions."
"How'd You Get Like That?"
Many chronic health conditions have unknown causes, and asking people how theirs arose — or whether something they did could have been related to it — implicitly puts the blame on them. "Society sees us as somehow deserving of an illness, as if some sin or transgression led to our health issues," says Schultz. "Bad or tough things can happen to anyone, not just the bad guys. Genetics, environmental elements, and trauma — things far out of our control — often lead to health issues."
This is one of the most stressful questions to get from someone you love, because many of us don't know when we'll get better or even
if we'll get better. Some of us won't get better. This question puts pressure on us to comfort our loved ones by reassuring them we'll get better whether or not it's true. Instead of asking this — or asking how they're doing, which can have the same effect — ask how you can support them or if there's anything you can do to help.
If someone confides in you that they're dealing with a health issue, they're in a vulnerable position. They're looking for you to affirm and validate their experience rather than trivialize it. Telling someone that they look healthy implies that the problem is not as severe as they're making it, that it's in their heads, or that it doesn't really matter because hey, at least they look good! So many health conditions, physical and mental,
are invisible. That doesn't make them any less significant.
"Why Didn't You Tell Me About That?"
Talking about a chronic health issue you're dealing with gets exhausting, not only because it can lead to irritating comments like these but also because the issues themselves are often very emotional. Talking about it forces us to think about the fact that our lives are significantly compromised and we don't know if or when we'll get better. This can bring up a lot of anger, sadness, and fear — emotions that can make our health worse. So, many of us choose not to talk about it at times.
On top of that, we're already overstretched and don't have the energy to cater to others' emotions. We should be focusing on taking care of ourselves, and pressuring us to talk about our condition for other people's sake pushes us to take care of other people.
"Is It Curable/Is It An Infection/What Are The Symptoms/What's It Called Again?"
You don't have to become an expert on the condition your loved one has, but doing your research goes a long way. It helps us feel supported and lets us avoid the annoying task of answering questions you could just Google. Plus, some of these questions are insensitive — it can be emotionally taxing, for example, to keep explaining that your condition isn't curable.
"Well, Hopefully You'll Sleep It Off!"
Yes, I've actually been told this — as if after all the medications and supplements and acupuncture and physical therapy and shamanic healings, all I really needed to do was... sleep! I get that it can be uncomfortable to talk about a friend's chronic condition, but comments like these come off super dismissive.
"Are You Sure It's Not In Your Head?"
There's no denying that
stress can contribute to health problems. The mind-body connection is real. But this doesn't mean anyone's health issues are purely psychological or can be cured through positive thinking. Whatever role our thoughts or feelings played in causing the condition, the effect is physical. And whatever emotions we were feeling that may have contributed to it are the result of our circumstances. This comment comes off not just trivializing but also victim-blaming.
So, what can you do to support a loved one with a chronic health condition? Listen to them, sympathize with them, do your research, and offer to help them find solutions. Even something as simple as offering them a hot water bottle or a food or drink that soothes them can go a long way. You may not be able to get rid of their condition, but you can make living with it less unpleasant — and less lonely.