Do you have a friend who is diagnosed with a chronic illness? Having a chronic illness can present any number of challenges for the person who has been diagnosed. Some of these challenges may be realized by the loved ones of the person with the illness. At times, these issues also may have some impact on the lives of the people close to the person with the illness.
If you are close to someone who has a chronic illness, you may be very aware of the above. You might also, despite knowing none of these difficulties are the person’s fault, become frustrated with them from time to time.
If you do, it’s okay to admit it. You are not alone in your feelings.
Let me tell you about my good friend Sarah. We met three years ago working at a coffee shop. She is outgoing, intelligent, and driven, and we immediately hit it off. However, Sarah was diagnosed with both fibromyalgia and chronic migraines. Her symptoms flare up unpredictably, and as a result, she has trouble holding a full-time job. In fact, she lost the job at the coffee shop because she couldn’t keep up with her scheduled shifts. When she was fired for absenteeism, I felt bad for her, but to be honest, I was also relieved. Since she called in sick so frequently, coworkers, myself included, were asked to fill in for her, which disrupted our own personal schedules. Needless to say, that was difficult for all of us.
Sarah also battles depression and anxiety related to her diagnoses. I personally can’t imagine what it’s like to live with chronic illness, but I can see how it can be depressing not being able to meet the goals you set, or frequently needing to change plans at a moment’s notice to deal with a flare-up of illness. Sometimes Sarah is too sad to get out of bed and cancels our plans. At other times she’s so anxious it makes her physically sick. Often she’s stuck in her head and doesn’t ask about how I’m doing. While I understand coping with all of the things she experiences must be difficult, it’s very frustrating when she cancels plans at the last minute or spends most of the time, when we do get to spend time together, discussing the physical difficulties she’s currently experiencing.
We show our friends we love them by offering support and our care, but we can’t forget to show love to ourselves by taking care of ourselves at the same time.
I want to support my friend, both in general and through her struggles. Our friendship is too important for me to give up. But I do also want to feel heard and encouraged by her. So as awkward as it was, I initiated a frank and open conversation. Together, we decided the following guidelines could help us both cope with her chronic illness:
- Be a good listener. While I’m willing to listen and give Sarah support when she faces challenges, I also want to share my thoughts and feelings and be heard by her. Sometimes I just need to ask bluntly for her ear, but she appreciates it when I do and admits that listening to my problems helps take her mind off hers.
- Be flexible. This is a tough one sometimes, especially if Sarah cancels plans at the last minute. I’ve learned that’s it’s all right to admit I’m disappointed. But it was also important for her to know that canceling plans is not a friendship-breaker. It’s important that we reschedule any canceled dates, but I also follow through with our original plans, even if it means going alone. This helps me not feel resentful about not being able to do what we had planned.
- Be informed. Before meeting Sarah, I had no idea what fibromyalgia really was. To be completely honest, I thought it was a made-up disease. But after reading clinical articles about it and attending a medical appointment with Sarah, I was better able to better understand how this “invisible illness” affects her life. It helped me learn not to blame her when she canceled our plans.
- Be mindful. We carefully word the questions we ask each other, using open-ended questions rather than ones that can be answered with a “Yes” or “No.” By doing so, we keep the lines of communication between us open and can get a better understanding of our situations in the moment. I also make sure to remain mindful of how I’m feeling. When I am having a rough day or week and communicate that, I feel better about being able to focus on my own needs.
- Be honest. Honesty is always the best policy. If Sarah doesn’t feel up to walking around a museum for several hours, then I want her to tell me that. Otherwise, neither one of us will enjoy the date. Likewise, I need to be open with her if I’m feeling frustrated or unheard by her. It isn’t easy to have these kinds of conversations with anyone, but Sarah and I have found that doing so helps us maintain a healthy friendship.
I have found having a friend with a chronic illness to be both a blessing and a challenge. Chronic illness will affect Sarah forever, so as long as we’re friends, I’ll be affected too. Sarah has opened my mind to diagnoses I didn’t know existed, and that has helped me be more understanding of the many challenging situations other people might also be experiencing. My friendship with Sarah has also helped me learn to more effectively identify and understand my own needs. I have also come to better understand just how important it is to maintain open communication and focus on self-care.
We show our friends we love them by offering support and our care, but we can’t forget to show love to ourselves by taking care of ourselves at the same time. If you would like help exploring ways to prioritize self-care or work on communication, a qualified and compassionate therapist or counselor is always a good resource.
- Metzger, C. (2016, July 22). Have a friend with chronic illness? Here are 10 ways you can help. Huffington Post. Retrieved from https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/have-a-friend-whos-chronically-ill-here-are-10-ways_us_57866e23e4b0e7c8734f4804
- Renee, B. (2017, November 10). 9 ways to better support someone with chronic illness. The Mighty. Retrieved from https://themighty.com/2017/11/supporting-friends-with-chronic-illnesses
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