The Don't Ask, Don't Tell Policy of Chronic Illness


If you don’t ask, I won’t tell. That sometimes becomes the easiest way to dance around being in relationship with the healthy while managing chronic illness.  

Please keep in mind that this article is written with the very broad spectrum of chronic illnesses in mind, from mental health issues to debilitating and degenerative diseases. I’ve written this to both the ones who struggles with illness, and the ones in relationship with him or her.

I had some surgery recently, which was the result of one of those perfectly constructed domino displays where treating one problem led to another to another. Now, I’m smack dab in the middle of missing my “this is working” treatment protocol thanks to one more falling domino. I didn’t tell people other than my family, a sweet lady from church who prayed me through it, and a close friend who happened to be on the receiving end of my “help” text, scooping up my child from school on one of the days where a quick re-check turned into a three-hour doctor visit. I privately asked my pastor for prayer and gave him the date of the procedure, explaining I don’t share things on the prayer chain anymore because, honestly, it could be something every week.  

We must decide when and what is “big enough” to call in reinforcements. Doing that too often can cause our dignity to take a hit because we may not want to be the “needy” one, the reason for a sigh or roll of the eyes amongst friends, the “again?” burden.  

Most likely, the dear one reading this knows this scenario all too well; however, if you are outside of the chronic illness circle, you do not, will not, and should not (because I don’t wish this on anyone) truly understand the persistence of our illnesses or the ways they dictates our days.

This does present some challenges as I seek deep and intimate relationships with others. What do I share? When do I share? With whom do I share? How much detail do I share? How often do I share?

For those of us who are sidelined, social media can be this sweet connection with others in the outside world, yet at the same time, it can awaken a longing for the normalcy our friends enjoy. Jealousy can easily creep in like the sneaky sin it is, as we read of shopping, travels and schedules brimming with activities. She whispers, “Don’t you wish you could do that?” Judgement can raise her ugly fist when we read “woe is me” posts about passing and temporary illnesses. She shouts, “Are you kidding me, you don’t know how much you should be thankful that all you have is a sore throat, wake up!” Next, comes Resentment or Resignation, whichever you allow to take hold.  

For my fellow CIBs (chronic illness buddies) and those of you who rub shoulders with us, I want to propose that Resentment shows up loud, proud and aggressive. She is in-your-face opinionated and speaks unapologetically in negative tones. She is angry at living a life she didn’t chose and has not yet embraced any beauty from her ashes. Her unresolved anger at God for allowing her suffering may spill into her everyday relationships with fellow humans. She fights a losing battle, exhausting all of her limited emotional and physical resources, against a life lived with limitations she doesn’t want. Resentment is just plain stuck in the mud of self pity.

Resignation, on the other hand, is more composed…. quiet, actually. She has come to a place of acceptance. She may even be able to look for the hidden blessings in her situation. Healthy Resignation has to be true. It isn’t resignation if it is pseudo-acceptance. That, my friends, is the sin of manipulation.

I believe Healthy Resignation speaks softly from a place of embracing the path God has allowed and trusting in his sweet promises every stony step of the way. Resignation is not superhuman, but I believe she rests in the one who is.

So, back to the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy… yes, I am aware of the drain that sharing my daily battles would place on my relationships with healthy friends and family. When you ask how someone with chronic illness is doing, they must immediately weigh out 1. Do you really want to know or are you being polite? 2. Would you understand the medical jargon I would need to explain it in? 3. Have I recently burdened you? 4. Is this the time or place for this conversation? 5. If I tell you the truth, will you pull away from me?  

Know that if a friend or loved one with chronic illness withdraws, it may be their well-intentioned attempt to protect the relationship with you they find so precious. It may well speak to how highly they value your place in their life. 

 A tentative friend may be one who is longing to pour out her angst and discouragement to someone he or she loves (you) but when is enough, enough? Better to keep quiet than risk loss?

Breaking the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy takes bravery. It takes a brave friend to take the time to authentically ask, and on the flip side, it takes a brave friend to truthfully tell. No matter which side of the fence you are on, it is a lot to take on in this hurried, surface-skimming world.

 Time and vulnerability: Neither are as highly valued as they should be. Food for thought.

Follow this journey on SoulTracings.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? If you’d like to participate, please send a blog post to [email protected] Please include a photo for the piece, a photo of yourself and 1-2 sentence bio. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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