Three Things Not To Say To People With Chronic Health Problems (And What You Can Say Instead)

It’s been a tough week in the ape preserve, I know, so as we close in on a holiday weekend, I thought I would lighten things up with a bit of chronic pain comedy.

Three Things Not To Say to People With Chronic Health Problems (and What You Can Say Instead)

(1) “I know this [specialist] you should see…”

Bear in mind that the person who is suffering is extremely motivated when it comes to seeking out medical help. After all, she is the one who has been unwell for this long. I assure you, she has been relentless in her pursuit of options to improve her condition. Internet searches, references from other doctors, exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, detoxing, changing her diet…I think you get the idea. She is thinking about what she could do to mitigate her health issues in every spare moment, often several times a day. As such, the chance of you making a suggestion that has not already occurred to her and been attempted is infinitesimally miniscule. If you’re feeling that lucky, play Powerball instead.

(2) “Wow, is that still going on?”

I’m sure this seems perfectly innocent. Many times, it may very well be. But it also has a passive-aggressive undercurrent. It implies that the sufferer should have gotten better by now, so perhaps she’s not trying hard enough. Or that the sufferer is making things out to be worse than they actually are and needs to toughen up and get over herself already. Or that the sufferer is engaging in a form of attention-seeking behavior that has now worn thin.

What’s sad about this is that no-one is more surprised about being unwell this long than the sufferer herself. We are not attention-seeking hypochondriacs. We share the sentiment that we should have gotten better by now. We, too, feel that this whole business is wearing thin. We would like nothing better than to be able to report that we are on the mend. We secretly suspect that if we did something differently – were tougher, perhaps – that we could have gotten past this by now. When someone implies just that, it fuels the negative self-talk that dogs us on particularly challenging days. Please, don’t feed the animals.

(3) “Let me know if there’s anything I can do – call me anytime!”

Allow me to qualify this: If it is actually true that you are able and willing to pick up the phone at any hour of the day or night, and if it is actually true that you have plenty of free time during regular business hours to help out someone who needs an errand run or a heavy thing lifted, then, by all means, go ahead and say this.

Otherwise, don’t. There is nothing wrong with not being able to help someone out. What is wrong is leading her to believe that you are able to so you can feel better about yourself. This whole ordeal has sensitized me to the fact that very few people have cultivated the life skill of only saying things they really mean. And, full disclosure, I used to say things like this, too, so I know where it’s coming from. Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, I no longer have the luxury of pretending to be more useful than I actually am.

So, what should you say to someone who is hurting? There are plenty of options, actually.  A brief, heartfelt expression of sympathy is always appreciated. Something like this:

(1) “I’m so sorry this is happening to you.”
(2) “You don’t deserve this.”
(3) “This isn’t your fault.”
(4) “I think you’re handling this all very well, under the circumstances.”
(5) “How about a hug?”

If someone is sharing her story with you, it is not because she wants medical advice. It is because she wants you to hear her, and agree with her that it is very, very hard, and that she has every right to feel upset, angry, depressed, or whatever other emotion has overtaken her in that moment. And that is all. And that is enough, I promise.

About SeeMorrigan

I'm a woman in her early forties who was beset in October of 2013 with a nerve entrapment due to an abnormal conformation of my shoulder blades. I was in constant, unrelieved pain for fifteen months, until, after countless misdiagnoses and mistreatments, a surgeon correctly diagnosed the issue and performed two surgeries to remove pieces of my shoulder blades. Along the way, I also discovered I am high-functioning autistic. I started this blog in March of 2014 as a way to try to process what was happening to me. It is my hope that by sharing it with you, we can both gain something, or at least learn something, from my experience.
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13 Responses to Three Things Not To Say To People With Chronic Health Problems (And What You Can Say Instead)

  1. martha0stout says:

    (*nods*) True, every single word of it.

    Like

  2. mandy says:

    Thanks for this!

    Like

  3. Cheryl-Lynn says:

    Reblogged this on Stop the Stigma and commented:
    A must read…see some things you think is helpful but truly are not…

    Like

  4. Kudos to you for writing this!! I love how you also mention where you are coming from…we have all said these things at one time or another and know why people say it. Suffering from chronic pain is also a humbling experience. Thank you for sharing this advice.

    Like

  5. Karuna says:

    Very nice! I’m passing it on……..

    It’s a good reminder to me too.

    Like

  6. steven1111 says:

    Great post. Totally real and true. I’ve heard all this drek and more besides. Thanks for writing this and I hope many other folks read it…
    Steve

    Like

  7. olliedab says:

    This rings true on a number of different levels and for a number of different cases. Very skilfully articulated. Thank you.

    Like

  8. How very true these words are. I happen to be in that situation and am sensitive to what people do say…..one other thing that people say when I mention in frustration at the doctors being unable or slow to diagnose…and I mention that I do look online to see if I can find out anything.. is… oh you shouldn’t do that or you’ll think you have everything..or words to that effect. Then I feel that they think I am … like you said ‘a hypochondriac’ just looking to have an illness. I have become very pro-active in the past year especially as the doctors seem so nonchalant sometimes. Diane

    Liked by 1 person

  9. quarksire says:

    i could not have said any of this any better this is so very kewl i think i am going to re read it a couple a times come up with a comment for my blog werld and re blog if if ya don’t mind, wow , i a say a lot of this stuff myself but not s=versionsed the same way as this and well, this is very well put yes, indeed, thank u for this blog, jest another one to add to the site that confirms that i am not as bad off as i though, lol. or r even as some think i am thanks a lot again,….. mikey 🙂 aka Q

    Like

  10. Reblogged this on It's a lonely place and commented:
    Very good poignant post on how to communicate to a sufferer of chronic pain it’s not exhaustive but makes one think x

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Brilliant post and one of my pet hates is “don’t let it stress you so much” and I think ok let’s see how unstressed you feel if I put a hammer to your back and expect you to cook dinner, look after the kids blah blah or another is “oh well” and change the subject or oh yes “you look good you must be feeling better” xxx

    Liked by 1 person

  12. “very few people have cultivated the life skill of only saying things they really mean”, this might be my favorite portion of the article. Very wel written. The other statement I dread (which I was recently told by a supervisor) is “Well, can’t they fix it?” (in this case followed by suggestions of procedures that would not help me in the least.
    I assure you, if they could “fix it”, I would have ensured that they had done so by now. I know I like to procrastinate, but this isn’t one of those cases.

    Liked by 1 person

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