When I first got sick with Lyme disease at 14, I didn’t expect that it would linger. At first, my mailbox was flooded with get well cards, and my room looked like a florist shop. Friends stopped by to visit, and family was sympathetic. But as weeks turned to months, the old adage, “out of sight, out of mind” began to ring true. I understood — people have their own lives, and to some degree, the attention I got for my illness made me feel awkward. In time, I realized that what I needed wasn’t sympathy, but: empathy. If sympathy looks with a gaze of pity, empathy instead says, “I see you and acknowledge you’re hurting. I don’t know what to do, but I’m present with you.” Before getting sick, I had been the straight-A student, athletic and active — the one that friends’ parents told their kids to emulate. But once I got sick and stayed sick, I felt embarrassed, like I was letting everyone around me down. And I felt powerless to change or fix it, let alone explain it.
Though being sick is difficult for anyone, it brings special challenges when you are in your teens and 20s. If you are living with an illness or disability, know that you are not alone — 54% of millennials report being diagnosed with a chronic illness. If you know someone with a chronic condition, here are some tips on how to be a supportive friend.
See the person before the illness
I met my best friend Lisa a few months before I got sick, and she remained my steadfast friend through the worst years of my illness. We talked on the phone nearly every day, but our conversations often focused on TV shows we liked, what was happening with the guy she had a crush on (Spoiler: She married him years later), and how school was going — not my health. Her parents were in the midst of a divorce, so she faced her own struggles, but we always found ways to make each other laugh. And that laughter was healing. I knew that I wasn’t a sick person in her eyes. She treated me the same way she had before I got sick. I was simply her friend and she was mine. I knew I could update her about the latest doctor visit or the new treatment I was trying, but it wasn’t the main focus of every conversation. Illness had filled so much of my world, so to be reminded that I was more than what I was suffering with gave me much needed breathing room.
Don’t try to fix things
Though it can be tempting to offer unsolicited advice on medical care or to share information about that amazing new treatment you read about, it’s better to exercise caution. If your friend expresses a desire to talk about treatments and initiates a conversation, then by all means share what you know. But otherwise, it’s better to leave it up to the experts. I know people meant well when they offered me tips on what to do, but in nearly every instance, I had already tried what they suggested, and it felt draining to have to convey that. I also felt like I was disappointing them when I had to say that their suggestion didn’t help.
Keep inviting them
When someone is dealing with a long-term health issue and has to decline invitations repeatedly, know that it’s not usually how they want things to be. In fact, it can be downright heartbreaking for the sick person to miss social events. Sometimes, a phase of not feeling well can last for months. Chronic illness has a level of unpredictability. Be patient, and ask your friend what she is up to doing. If you can, be flexible. Maybe she can’t go out dancing, but she can sit outside in a park and chat or have you over for a movie. Low-key adventure is still adventure.
Everyone has secret insecurities and fears of why they might not be accepted. When a person is coping with chronic illness, their vulnerability can be heightened. Even when I got well from having been sick, I worried that people might not accept me for my past or that it would be harder to connect on an authentic level. I didn’t like talking about my illness, but to omit it from my history made it seem like I was not being open about my life. If you have a friend coping with a chronic illness, try to find what you share in common. Having similar interests in books, music, or movies might bring you closer than sharing about activities or experiences. My memories and frames of reference are different than many of my peers — I didn’t have a fear of missing out in the future, but a fear of already having missed out in the past. But I learned that it’s okay to have a different path. Being a supportive friend doesn’t mean having the ability to fix or change things, so just help when and how you can. If your friend feels left out, look for creative ways to include them. If there’s a party, perhaps Facetime or Skype them from the gathering if they can’t attend. So much of adulthood is accepting that there are things we can change and things we can’t. Life requires flexibility — even moreso when illness is involved.
I’m lucky to have found people who accept me for who I am and much to my surprise, admire me for my resilience. Living with health issues made me infinitely more empathetic to other people’s challenges and taught me that each of us is defined by so much more than what we struggle with. Everyone has some obstacle to overcome, but having good and true friends makes the journey not only easier, but more worthwhile.
Originally published on August 22, 2017.