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Why This Well-Meaning Comment Isn't Helpful to People With Chronic Illness

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“Oh, you have (insert chronic illness here)? I have a friend with that and she’s doing so well and lives a totally normal life.”

“I know someone with that too! He tried (insert treatment/therapy method) and he’s seen a huge improvement.”

“My sister-in-law got diagnosed with that years ago and she has a great career now.”

Knowing what to say in response to talking to someone about their chronic illness can be difficult. It’s hard to find the right words to express your empathy or ask questions, and of course, you want to be respectful and supportive of your chronically ill friend. While your kindness and compassion is appreciated, you may inadvertently say something upsetting.

As someone with chronic illnesses myself, I have these conversations with friends often and have noticed a common response that comes across the wrong way. When I talk about my chronic illness, responding by telling me about how well someone else you know with the same or similar illness is doing is unhelpful and can be upsetting.

I know this is your attempt to make personal connections and express your understanding, and I appreciate that. But, everyone’s experience with chronic illness is unique, even amongst those with the same illness. While I am happy to hear that your friend is doing well, my experience may be very different. Optimism for the future is great, but some people with chronic illness will never see any improvement in their symptoms and rather have to learn to adjust to life with their illness. So, suggesting that recovery is possible can be upsetting as it diminishes our experience and emphasizes a lack of understanding.

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I also have to ask myself how well your friend is actually doing. Some people with chronic illness, particularly those illnesses that are invisible, may be able to mask their symptoms when with their friends. I put on a front that I am fine all the time when seeing and talking to friends for many reasons. I don’t want to bring the fun down by telling everyone how terrible I feel and I often want to forget and have fun myself. Every day I live with these disabling symptoms, so when an opportunity to see my friends and have a good time comes up, I usually appreciate a distraction. Your friend with chronic illness may very well be doing the same thing. You don’t see what happens when they get home that night, and they might not want to talk about it anyway.

So, the person you know who’s doing “so well” living with my illness really might not be after all. I do not mean to suggest that it is impossible for someone with a chronic illness to be doing well, but it is not the case for everyone. Suggesting that their potential success may be attainable for me makes me feel like you’re dismissing the severity of my condition. Your heart is in the right place and I see that, but I ask you to consider this when talking to your friends with chronic illness.

Suggesting that my condition may improve because someone else’s did is not the way to go. Instead, I encourage expressing your support by asking your friend if they need any help, want to talk, or simply acknowledge that they are not necessarily OK. It is important to meet them where they’re at today rather than look to an unknown future. Your friendship is valued and your drive to comfort is kind, so stay away from comparisons and continue being there for your chronically ill friends; they need it.

Getty image by Ponomariova_Maria.

Originally published: September 13, 2020
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