12 Things You Should Never Say to People with a Chronic or Invisible Illness
If you’re chronically ill you’ll probably understand the constant struggle of having insensitive and upsetting questions and comments directed towards you. But if you’re someone who isn’t chronically ill yourself or has never known anyone who is, you may wonder what comments you should avoid.
Although some people may perceive some of these comments as kind or coming from a caring place, it’s important to try and understand what it’s like to be on the receiving end of them and why they may be distressing to those of us who are chronically ill. Keep reading to learn about which comments you should never say and why.
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1 - “You don’t look sick”
Thanks for letting me know, but I am! Did you know that 96% of chronic illnesses are invisible? That means that you can’t tell just by looking at someone whether they’re sick or not.
It’s cliché, but you have probably heard the saying “don’t judge a book by its cover” or, in this case, don’t judge a person for looking well on the outside when you don’t truly know how they’re feeling on the inside.
2 - “Yeah, I didn’t sleep much last night, so I totally understand your fatigue”
Tiredness is not the same as fatigue. You feel tired after having a long day at work and having to trek back home afterwards, but your tiredness can be fixed by a nap, rest or a good night’s sleep.
Fatigue is feeling exhausted after doing the simplest of tasks like getting out of bed or making a drink and cannot be fixed by any amount of sleep or rest. Think of it as doing a marathon every day for a week when you have the flu and then trying to recover from that with only 4 hours of sleep.
3 - “But you could do that yesterday, why can’t you do it today?”
Symptoms fluctuate from day to day. Doing something yesterday will impact on tomorrow in the form of pain, exacerbated symptoms and fatigue. As you know from the above comment, fatigue is a debilitating symptom that cannot just be fixed by a night’s sleep and often takes a long time to recover from (sometimes we don’t ever fully get back to where we were previously).
What we did yesterday means that we’ll likely have to rest and recover for weeks to get back to our baseline again.
4 - “Everyone gets sick”
Everyone experiences bugs like tonsilitis or a cold in their life, but not everyone has a chronic, debilitating and lifelong health condition that impacts every aspect of their daily life. It may take you a few days to a week for you to recover from a cold, however chronic illnesses are often life long and incurable.
This comment is extremely invalidating, unsupportive and completely downplays what we are going through. It makes it sound like we are being overly dramatic, that our illness and experiences aren’t really that bad.
5 - “Just try to push through”
This is a very dangerous thing to tell someone with a chronic health condition to do. When you say this, it also comes across as you telling us that our symptoms really aren’t that bad, that we’re overreacting and that we can simply just keep pushing forward. Pushing past our limit can cause injuries, exacerbations in our pain and other symptoms, which could ultimately lead to deterioration in our health.
6 - “Are you better yet?”
Nope, and I don’t know if I ever will be! Chronic illness is not like a cold that you can recover from in a week or two; for the vast majority of chronically ill people, they’ll live with their disease for the rest of their life.
Asking this question, especially to someone who is newly diagnosed, can be extremely upsetting as they may still be coming to terms with the fact that they might never get better.
7 - “It must be so nice not to have to go to work/school!”
This is like saying “it must be nice to not be able to follow your dreams of getting your degree or having that job you’ve always seen yourself doing.” Chronically ill people would love to be able to pursue their passions, but unfortunately a lot of us are just too unwell to do so.
Try to be cognisant that people with chronic illness also want to live their lives and that comments like these can really sting. They can be a reminder of the fact that we can’t do what we have dreamt of doing our entire lives.
8 - “It must be nice to stay at home all day”
Very similar to the previous comment, this one is also incredibly insensitive. Chronically ill people do not spend their days at home for fun. Most of our time is spent in bed in great amounts of pain, with extreme and debilitating fatigue that means even the simplest of tasks are difficult. I don’t think anyone would say that’s “nice.”
9 - “It could be worse!”
Could it really? I don’t know what could be worse than having a chronic, incurable and debilitating illness that has completely altered my life meaning that I can’t do simple daily activities like showering without having to spend days recovering. This comment is particularly devastating to hear because it invalidates what we’re going through and makes it seem like it’s not such a big deal.
10 - “At least you don’t have (insert other illness here)”
Chronic illness is not a competition. It’s not a race to see who has it worse, what illness is perceived to be more devastating than another and so on. Telling someone this is like saying that they shouldn’t be allowed to talk about their illness or be (rightfully) upset about what they are experiencing because of it.
Everyone’s thoughts and feelings are valid. We shouldn’t be telling people what they should and shouldn’t feel bad for going through – it isn’t a decision to be upset when processing the fact that you’ve been diagnosed with an incurable illness (most people would be). Let people process their emotions and don’t make them feel guilty for it; it’s an important part of dealing with the situation they are experiencing.
11 - “But you’re so young, you can’t have that!”
Anyone of any age, whether you’re a baby, child, teenager, adult or elder, can be impacted by a chronic illness. Our bodies don’t choose to not make us chronically ill because we’re a teenager or a young adult – in fact, many people become chronically ill when they are in these age groups. Chronic illnesses do not discriminate; they can impact anyone at any age.
12 - “Oh yes, I have pain sometimes too”
You probably do! In fact, I’m sure most people experience pain now and again. Maybe you get some back pain after pulling your muscles or you sprain an ankle. However, this is not the same as having chronic pain from a health condition.
Chronic pain is debilitating and it isn’t something that will go away if you rest the part of your body that hurts. Even taking pain killers doesn’t usually take the pain away for people with chronic pain, it merely lowers the pain level. Remember that saying something like this really does come across as you trying to diminish our pain.
If there’s anything you should learn from this blog post, it’s to remember that you can’t see how someone is feeling inside just by looking at them and that comments that may seem harmless to you may be very upsetting to someone who has a chronic or invisible illness.
Chronic illness is really hard to live with and unfortunately insensitive comments can be really upsetting to us when all we want/need is support. Please listen to your chronically ill friends and family members and try your best to understand where they are coming from, I promise you they will appreciate it!
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