How Not To Be A Dick To A Chronically Ill Person

Denying that your friends' illnesses are real -- or implying that they can be fixed by happy thoughts -- is unlikely to inspire them; instead, it will probably just piss them off.

May 1, 2013 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

With nearly half of all Americans having some type of chronic health condition, you'd think most people would be well versed on how to not be a dick to their sick friends. But in my experience, that's far from the case.
 
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My fancy medical alert necklace.

 
However, I think that most people who do dickish things still have good intentions. So for those of you who are unintentionally dicks to your sick friends, I have some tips:
 
1. Don't Act Like It's All in Our Heads
 
I'm all about the positive thinking. When my doctor tells me about a new treatment -- no matter how crazy it sounds -– I try to picture it working in my head. I imagine myself getting better.
 
And that stuff's great, but it's super annoying when someone suggests that the only reason I'm still sick is because I'm not positive enough -– or worse, that my illness is all in my head.
 
I once showed a not-so-understanding ex-boyfriend a list of symptoms put out by a patient advocacy group, hoping to educate him a bit about what I was going through. His reaction: It was all “propaganda,” and I just needed to think positively if I wanted to feel better. 
 
Now I think most xoJane readers know better than to say something like that to a sick person. But even comments like, “If you quit thinking about being sick, then maybe you will be better,” can get old real fast. I know people who say this probably mean well, but it's insulting to suggest that someone is only sick because they aren't thinking positively enough. Not only does it place the blame for the illness on the sick person, but it also marginalizes the severity of their illness.
 
Denying that your friends' illnesses are real -- or implying that they can be fixed by happy thoughts -- is unlikely to inspire them; instead, it will probably just piss them off.
 
2. Don't Act Like You Know More About The Illness Than Your Sick Friend
 
I might just scream the next time I hear, “You just need to take more vitamins/exercise more/go on this new diet.”
 
I get that you're trying to help here, but just because you watch Dr. Oz once in a while does not make you an expert on your friend's illness.
 
It's not unusual for chronically ill people to spend hours every week researching online, reading countless medical books and consulting with doctors about their illnesses. It's unlikely that they haven't heard whatever advice you are offering them. 
 
Although I know it bothers some sick people, I  actually don't mind when people tell me about new treatments that they've heard about or how they know someone who had a similar problem. I get that they're just trying to be helpful. I only mind when people are patronizing or act like they are authorities on the subject, when they obviously aren't. 
 
3. Don't Tell Them They Are Lucky
 
Yes, I'm lucky to live in a country where I can get decent medical care. Yes, I'm lucky to have a family who would never let me end up on the streets when I don't have the money to pay for said medical care. And yes, I'm lucky I don't have (insert other random horrible disease here). These things are often on my nightly lists of things I'm grateful for.
 
But sometimes I don't feel so lucky. When I come home from the hospital with more questions than answers, please don't tell me that I'm lucky I'm not dying, especially if you've never been in my shoes. It's patronizing and annoying -– not reassuring. 
 
And please never tell a sick person they are lucky they get to sleep all day, skip work or whatever else seems enviable from a healthy person's perspective. That person is probably dying to live a more normal life, work and all. And staying in bed or not having to work isn't exactly a vacation if you are constantly in pain.
 
4. Don't Tell Them Their Treatment Sounds Crazy
 
Some people love to go on about how if something doesn't have a crap-ton of scientific research then it isn't safe and there's no way it will work. Now, I love it when something is backed by science, but realistically once you've already exhausted all the heavily researched options (which tend to only be things drug companies can profit on), you have two choices: continue doing what isn't working or try something new.
 
Personally, I'm doing a mix of both. But my “try something new” list has included wearing wet socks to bed, eating a crazy-restrictive diet and a taking a bunch of different supplements recommended by a naturopathic doctor. 
 
Are all of these treatments backed by thousands of research studies? Nope. 
 
If something does work, do I know for sure that it's not just a placebo effect? Nope.
 
But it beats sitting around doing nothing. And maybe I'll eventually stumble on something that actually does help me.
 
My mantra right now is something along the lines of, “If it doesn't sound like it will hurt me, and my doctor approves it, then I guess I'll give it a try.” Plus, if you want me to keep doing that “positive thinking” stuff, it would help if you didn't tell me there's no way this crap will help me.
 
5. Understand When We Can't Go Out
 
Right now I'm a pretty crappy friend, aunt, sister, daughter, girlfriend, etc. I know this, and I hate it.
 
I've missed birthday parties, graduation celebrations, picnics, vacations and more. And I know it makes people upset. But I already feel like a crappy person for telling people I can't make it to their events. It makes me feel a million times worse when they beg me to give it a try.
 
Please don't try to guilt trip your friends into going to something when their sick. The few times I've allowed people to do this, I've ended up either puking in the bathroom or begging someone to take me home. 
 
I know my body. I know my limits. If I'm bailing on an important event, then it means I can't handle it. Please respect that.
 
6. Don't Comment on my Weight Gain or Loss
 
I was at a work party when someone I hadn't seen for a couple of months yelled across the room, “Oh wow, you gained some weight!” I could feel my face heat up with embarrassment as she rushed to amend her comment with a quick “But that's a good thing -- you were looking small and sickly before.” Before that event, I spent hours trying to find an outfit that didn't draw attention to the fact that I was bloated from steroids, but apparently it hadn't worked.
 
When I was underweight from Graves' disease, people were also constantly commenting on my weight with comments that ranged from “Are you anorexic?” to “God, I'm so jealous.” 
 
Those sorts of comments just make me hypersensitive about the way I look. Even if you think whatever you're saying is a compliment -- please, just keep it to yourself. 
 
So what do you think? Have you ever accidentally been a dick to a chronically ill person? And if you have a chronic illness, what sort of things bug you?