How You Can Best Support Me as I Live With Chronic and Mental Illnesses
During my time with both mental and chronic illness, I notice again and again my family and friends struggling with how best to support me. Never having lived a day in the world of mental illness, how can they understand the best way to react to my unpredictable symptoms when they take a toll on them too? Living with chronic illness can be just as isolating. People are supportive in the beginning, but after a while I find others expect you to get “cured” and move on, or grow tired of how it impacts them. Both of these can make someone go from a person with an illness to an alien.
I know my family and friends want to care and help the best they can, but sometimes even the best intentions have poor outcomes. I’ve compiled a list of some of the most common ways people have reacted to illness (of both the physical and mental varieties), and what to do instead.
1. Don’t look for symptoms everywhere. I find this is most prevalent immediately after I come “out” to someone about my illnesses. Did she not eat because she’s feeling sick? Is she reading a book to isolate herself? I also find this takes the form of, “Is that why you couldn’t come to ___?” or, “Is that what you were referring to when you said___?” If you look for symptoms everywhere, you’re bound to find them, whether they are there or not. While this means someone is being more mindful of your symptoms or needs, it ends up reducing people to their illness.
2. My illness doesn’t make me incompetent or incapable. Dealing with mental and physical illnesses means that I do need a bit more help from others, whether in the form of doctor appointments or support from family and friends. Being sick, in one way or another, doesn’t make me feel like a “warrior.” It makes me feel weak for all the things I can’t do, and for all the ways I have to modify my life to perform at everyone else’s mediocre. I already feel that way — I don’t need others to reinforce this by coddling me or making suggestions on what I should or shouldn’t do.
3. I know myself best. Have faith in us. I can guarantee that I know the best ways on managing my illnesses. While well-intentioned, I don’t need someone to question the things I do with questions like, “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” If I’m inclined to an activity, then I’ve already evaluated the situation extensively, and determined that it’s something I can and want to pursue. This also takes the form of, “Don’t be so lazy/so negative.” There’s a war going on inside my body, you better bet I’m going to rest!
4. “Have you seen or tried ____?” I know many other people who find this to be one of the most frustrating well-intentioned suggestions. Trust that we are well informed about our own condition(s) and stay up to speed in new treatments and therapies in our respective circles. From an outsider view, it can be hard to see someone struggling and not know how to help. However, this advice is generally not well received, so trust that if “treatment x” was working, we would be doing it. Unless you are a medical professional, I don’t take well to suggestions on how to manage my own illness.
5. Be respectful. All in all, whatever side of an illness you’re on, it’s bound to be difficult and isolating. Managing a chronic condition or mental illness can be frustrating from so many different angles. Even if you can’t see someone struggling, it doesn’t mean they aren’t. And if it is more visible, trust that it isn’t made up, or for attention. There is nothing glamorous about that type of attention. Just remember: there’s a person under the illness.
Illnesses have a way of making us feel alien and foreign, apart from the rest of the world. But with a little understanding and a lot of patience, we can close the gap, if only a little. Every inch counts.
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