When You Tell Me 'I Don't Know How You Survive'


I have been struggling with various forms of debilitating chronic illness for years, and I’m tired of people telling me things that can easily translate to them saying that I “should die.”

I know that’s not what they’re intending to say, when generally well-meaning people tell me something along the lines of, “I don’t know how you survive.” I know they’re trying to be nice, to generate sympathy, to show that they realize I’m dealing with something serious and difficult. But instead, it feels like they’re telling me I shouldn’t be surviving, that my default state should be death.

This is a sentiment that comes out in other ways, too:

“If I was in that much pain all the time, I would just die.”

“I can’t even imagine what you’re going through; I wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

“How are you even functioning with all this?”

Well, the answer is, I’m not functioning even close to the capacity that I should be able to, or used to be able to. In fact, I’m not handling it well at all. I’m miserable, in a lot of pain, and depressed. So when people say they would die in my situation, it kind of makes me think I should be dead.

Before you tell someone, “I don’t know how you survive,” ask yourself what their alternative is. What are you expressing surprise and/or amazement at? The fact that I haven’t died by suicide? The fact that I still drag my body through some semblance of life, instead of lying in bed without food or water until I die a slow and agonizing death?

Well-wishers and sympathizers, I appreciate your concern. I realize that I’m in a difficult situation and that it’s hard to know the right thing to say. But, please, stop telling me I should die. I’ve been having enough trouble staying alive as it is without having my own friends invalidate that decision.

Here are some ideas for things you could say instead:

“Wow, that sounds really hard. I’m sorry that you’re going through that.”

“I can’t imagine what that must be like. Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.”

“I have never experienced a long term illness like that. I struggle when I’m sick for a few days. I’m impressed by what you do manage to do given your circumstances.”

“I don’t know what that is like, but if you want to talk about it, I’m here to listen.”

If you have friends with chronic illness, think about the words you use with them. Be careful how you phrase things. Ask yourself what you mean to say, and whether it is a kind way of putting it. Remember that this is already hard on us, whether we’ve shown you that or not, and consider whether your words are putting balm or salt on our wounds.

This may seem like trivial criticism of thoughtless exclamations to you, but to me it’s about one more thing making me question my own existence. And, trust me, I already have enough of that without extra help.

Getty Image by rattodisabina


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