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.