The Words Your Chronically Ill Friend May Want to Hear Instead of 'You're So Strong'

I am a childless senior living alone with mold illness, severe hearing loss, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and depression. I’m many states away, or across the country, from my closest friends and the little family I have left, and haven’t seen most in many years. It’s difficult to cope with nearly everything alone. Every day I’m thankful for my three cats, a local monthly support group, and people who keep in touch by e-mail, texts or Facebook, since I can’t hear most people on a phone.

I once handled a bookkeeping job and clients, housework, yard work, cooking and caring for my disabled husband with cancer. The death of my beloved husband, followed by injuries from a car accident, and a subsequent abusive marriage during which I was stricken with mold illness, have caused my life to unravel. It’s distressing to feel I’ve lost what makes me “me.” A really good day now might mean I can run a few nearby errands and will likely crash the next day. For my mental health, I’ve had to ignore the increasing house, yard and car maintenance, but they’re still “there,” and at times I’m forced to deal with one on a crisis basis.

Most of us have read at least one article listing what to say to a chronically ill person. Personally, I’d like to reword one I often see: “You are so strong.” This is supposed to remind people that despite their illness, they have the strength to keep up the fight. However, if a friend said that to me, it would feel as if she hadn’t truly listened. I’m sure she would have meant well and read a similar article, but that wouldn’t have acknowledged the overwhelming fatigue and other obstacles I live with on a daily basis. I don’t want a cheerleader or pity, just awareness. More than anything, I want to hear how and what my friends and family are doing so I still feel included in their lives despite the distances that separate us. And that’s why I share my life with them.

No, I am not strong. I’m physically and mentally depleted after five years of coping with illness and adversity. I’m living what I once thought was my worst nightmare… sick and alone. Waking up brings an instant, intense jolt of anxiety, wondering if I have the ability to mentally, physically and financially deal with the day’s most basic necessities, as well as any new problems.

On the other hand, two people who know me well have remarked on my courage. I had to mull that over. Some would argue the words “strength” and “courage” are the same thing, it’s merely semantics, but they’re distinctly different in my mind, as well as in the dictionary. Instead of telling your friend, “You are so strong”, I believe it would be far more meaningful to say, “I admire your courage.” It meant so much to me to hear this from my friends.

“Necessity does the work of courage” — a quote from Nicholas M. Butler — describes my new life. But I want to do more than just exist, so I search for something worthwhile to accomplish, within my diminished abilities, to feel my life still has some significance.

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Thinkstock photo by jacoblund

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