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I Couldn't Feel True Empathy Until I Became Sick

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I used to struggle with empathy. The onset of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) during childhood can sometimes have this effect on a person. Other people’s struggles and hardships? Not my concern. Not even just not my concern, I just didn’t care, I had no feelings about them either way. You broke your leg? That sucks. Moving on. Your aunt has cancer? Oh… I really don’t know what to say to that. I’m hungry, when are they going to bring our food?

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When I say that I struggled with empathy, what I mean is that I had virtually none. I was able to recognize that something was a sad or hard situation, but I wasn’t able to empathize with a person or feel anything about what they were telling me. It just was what it was.

Then as I got older, being re-traumatized again and again from one abusive relationship to the next, my (lack of) empathy got even worse, to the point that I began to treat people as poorly as I had been treated myself. I was abused and traumatized, and in turn abused others, others who did not deserve it because nobody ever deserves abuse. I am aware of my actions and I take responsibility and accountability for my behaviors and for myself during those times. The people I hurt deserve apologies, and if I were able to still get in contact with them, they’d get them now, even all these years later.

But then something happened that I never expected. I became ill. Terribly, chronically ill. It started with my spinal arthritis, degenerative disc disease. Then next thing I knew I also had fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, migraines, carpal tunnel, arthritis in my knees; the diagnoses kept coming and coming, and I was overwhelmed by them. Finally, I was diagnosed with hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), and while it explained so much, it didn’t help me feel any better.

Then something confusing happened. When I became ill, I was shown so much compassion by so many people. Compassion I, at first, did not understand. Why were these people being so nice and understanding with me? Why were they helping me? Why did they care so much about how I was doing, whether I needed help, in what way they could help ease my way through my day, or even through my life? I was utterly perplexed.

Becoming ill generated this bubble of compassion and generosity that surrounded me like a thick layer of healing energy, and it brought about a shift in me that I never expected nor could have even imagined.

Between the compassion surrounding me and my consistent therapy, I began to heal in ways I didn’t know I needed healing from.

I began to feel empathy. I began to feel compassion toward others.

Becoming chronically ill lead me down a path of being able to see people, see their pain, feel their pain with them, and join in supporting them through it. It led me to look at people and wonder how many of them were struggling with invisible illnesses like I was. If someone was being a jerk, I’d wonder if maybe they were having a bad pain day, or a bad mental health day. Someone was perpetually in a bad mood? Maybe they struggle with chronic pain like I do, and I began to show these people even more compassion than I would normally. I began to watch as it changed them in little ways, and myself in huge ways.

Working in the medical field, having chronic illness and chronic pain has made it so much easier to be compassionate in an honest, meaningful, authentic way. I always ask my patients how they are doing, talk to them, show genuine sympathy when they are having a rough time, and celebrate with sincere joy with them when they have triumphed and are doing well. My patients who I see regularly have grown to love and appreciate me, as I have grown to love and appreciate them.

Chronic illness has changed me in ways I never could have imagined. Would I wish chronic illness on anyone? No. Never. Chronic illness is a beast you fight forever, a beast that exhausts you, and a beast you can never defeat.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn anything from fighting your beast. Or from those who see you fighting your beast and cheer you on and believe in you, who help you stay strong enough to continue fighting your beast.

I will have these illnesses for the rest of my life. I have come to terms with that. I could be sad, angry, or hopeless. But I choose to learn lessons from it instead.

I choose to learn lessons from the people around me who were kind and compassionate. I choose to let my illnesses make me kind — kind to myself and kind to others.

Chronic illness changed me. I wish it didn’t take this to make me a kinder, more empathetic and compassionate person, but I will be ever grateful that something – anything — did.

Originally published: July 30, 2019
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