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12 Ways You Can Support Your Friend With Crohn’s Disease

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You have a friend and one day they tell you they have Crohn’s disease. Or maybe you’ve known for ages, but it’s only been recently that they’ve started to struggle more. Either way, because you’re a kind and decent human your main question is, “How can I support my friend? What do I do?”

First of all, Crohn’s disease is a type of inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) that may affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from mouth to anus. Symptoms often include abdominal pain, diarrhea, fatigue and weight loss. Think of it as having a
bout of food poisoning that stays with you for the rest of your life. Some people have next to no symptoms for years, while others have severe symptoms that can greatly impact their lives. It’s unpredictable, chronic, and can be difficult to talk to people about.

Once you’ve worked out what Crohn’s is, that it’s not contagious, and that you can’t cure it through (insert spurious cure here), you’re ready to step up into finding genuine ways to help your friend.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new Crohn's & UC Support group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Join the Crohn's & UC Support group to connect with people who understand life with IBD. Share resources, advice, triumphs, and struggles with others who get it. Click to join.

From over a decade of experience, here’s what has helped me:

1. Be there. The most important thing is to be there for them, be their friend. You’ll make mistakes, but they will too. One night you might share your popcorn with them and send them to the emergency room – oops. But hey, they missed your birthday party, again.

It’s ok to say the wrong thing, do the wrong thing or feel a little unsure. All friendships can be a bit like that, but I promise it is better to hang in there and make a few mistakes than it is to disappear.

2. Accept they may miss your important things. Sometimes, when Crohn’s is flaring, or even when it is in remission, it can be very difficult to stick to plans. This can be because of fatigue or because your friend is stuck on the loo, or a myriad of other plan ruining symptoms. It can be incredibly frustrating for both of you. It’s even worse when it happens a lot.

The best thing you can do is understand that they are trying, accept that this time they might not be there and will try again a different day. No matter how frustrating it is for you, it’s probably worse for your friend who is feeling unwell, upset they let you down, and angry that their body won’t let them do what’s important to them. Let them know it’s OK.

3. If they say they need the loo, they need it now. Not in 10 minutes, not just after you’ve finished applying your eyeliner – now. If you love your friend, like them, or even have some basic human respect for them, let them get to the loo. If you’re driving and they say this, think fast and drive to the nearest loo. If you’re in a queue, they go first. Don’t decide to just finish your conversation, don’t get in their way, just let them go.

4. Let them poop in peace. There is some unwritten female rule that when someone says, “I’m just going to the loo,” all women must answer, “Oh yeah, me too.” Then you all go together and feel united in your femininity. Maybe guys do this too, I don’t know. But for your friend with Crohn’s, this might not be great.

They’ve got stuff to do in there, it might take some time, it might be noisy, it might smell. You know what, they can probably handle it alone. In fact, it would likely be less embarrassing for them if you didn’t follow them in, wait outside, have a conversation with them and generally be there while they butt vomit into a toilet. It’ll be a shame to break the sacred toilet gathering, but your friend will silently thank you.

5. Let them make mistakes. Remember how you drank a bottle of wine, followed by the mystery cocktail and then spent the next morning groaning in bed?  Well, that’s similar to the time your friend with Crohn’s ate the delicious sweetcorn knowing full-well that it would hurt them, devoured it with reckless abandon and then spent three hours curled up in a ball on the sofa silently sobbing to themselves.

Just because your friend has a disease doesn’t mean they’re any less ridiculous than the rest of us. Sometimes, the temptation is too much to bear. You know what, it’s their body, their time curled up in a ball and their decision. Let them make it and be there with a hot water bottle afterwards.

6. When they’re in pain, be practical. Pain can make it difficult to think straight. If your friend is in pain and curled up then see if they need these things: water and pain medication, a hot water bottle, blanket, a bowl in case they might be sick, peace and quiet, or company. A hot bath can also help if the pain isn’t too bad. If they’re clearly in severe pain then ask if they need you to call a doctor, or take them to an emergency room. If they’re in severe pain or vomiting, and struggling to answer your questions, then it’s probably a good idea to get some medical attention – but always ask them first.

Please don’t panic, just try and help them to get comfortable. If they end up asleep, smiling or can move away from the sofa, then you’ve done a great job.

7. Check in and find out how they really are. It’s easy to hear your friend talk about all that’s going on with them without really hearing them. What are they saying to you? How would you feel in their position? There is a lot of pressure on people with chronic illness to push through and pretend things are going OK, even when they’re struggling. Make time for your friend and ask them how they’re coping.

8. If they’re struggling, offer to help them. So, you pop round your friend’s and you see their house is a mess, the washing is piled high and they’ve got no food in the fridge. If they usually cope well and recently they’ve started to let things slip, it’s a good sign that they may be too unwell to keep up with day-to-day tasks. There’s no
need to make a big deal about it, just take them to the shop when you go, or
ask if they need a hand with the washing.

It can be hard to admit it when you need help, but someone offering without judgement can make it that much easier.

9. If they have an accident, don’t overreact. Crohn’s is a rubbish disease. One of the things that is most difficult to deal with is that sometimes you don’t reach the toilet in time and you have an accident. There’s no way to sugar coat it, it’s embarrassing.  It’s probably one of the things that people with Crohn’s fear most.

If your friend has an accident while they’re out with you, stay calm and be practical. Get them to a private place where they can sort themselves out. Try and use your initiative. What do they need? Run to a store and get the things. Think wet wipes, change of clothes, and a plastic bag. But most of all, let them know it’s OK. It doesn’t change anything, they’re still awesome. They’re still amazing and you love them just the same.

10. Look after yourself first. First and foremost, you’re a friend. You’re not a carer, you’re not a parent, you’re a friend. The quickest way to make someone feel like a burden is by making them a burden. So, take care of yourself first.

Support your friend in a way that seems natural to you. Do it because you love them and because you enjoy spending time with them. Remember, it’s easier for your friend to ask for help and support if they know you’ll say “no” if it’s too much. If being there for your friend feels overwhelming or difficult, it probably isn’t going to benefit either of you.

11. Let them support you too. Often people say, “I can’t believe I’m telling you this when you have so much on.” But, your friend will still want to hear your stuff. Just talk to them like you always have done.

12. Finally, have fun with them. Your friend with Crohn’s is just that, your friend who happens to have a disease. They are a friend first. If they’re struggling to do the things you usually do together, find ways to have fun together that they can enjoy.  Can’t shop for hours? Maybe just go for an hour. Struggling to leave the house? Go round and watch a movie. Can’t go out drinking right now? Go to them and have a pamper session.

It doesn’t matter what you do, just do it together, enjoy each other – that’s why you became friends in the first place. Because they’re great, you’re great and you’re even better together.

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Thinkstock Image By: tomap49

Originally published: April 13, 2017
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