Chronically Catherine: Being a Friend 101: The Chronic Illness Crash Course
Welcome, darling to “Being a Friend 101: The Chronic Illness Crash Course.” Here we’ll tackle some of the basics of how to be a friend to someone who has a chronic illness or disability.
I’ll save the socio-historical answers for another time because I’d much rather do this a-lá 2008 Tiger Beat tween magazine style, peppermint mocha in hand, bean bag under my booty, sharing the scoop from the source — my friends. So, grab your Starbucks and snuggle up because baby it’s cold outside.
Module 1: Take Their Lead —Listen and Believe
Rule number one is take their lead. If your friend feels vulnerable enough to share, take the advice of my ride-or-die high school bestie, Britta: “The most important thing is to listen because there’s going to be a lot that you don’t understand … there may be cognitive dissonance … “Wait, my friend is so young … how could this be happening?’” For the longest time I would report symptoms to my friends that didn’t make any sense to me, like I don’t fucking know why my veins are making a honeycomb pattern on my ankle! But having the space to be confused and frustrated with them, laugh about it, and be believed made me feel much less alone.
Module 2: Lessons in Patience
I like to joke that chronic illness should be called chronic patience because the amount of patience you need when you’re waiting for diagnoses for months, even years, is equivalent to the fortitude of a thousand Carrie Bradshaw’s trying to exercise restraint while window shopping. My majestic marathoning best friend Morgan and artistic beam of sunshine Lindsey got it right — patience is the name of the game for everyone involved, and “progress isn’t linear.” Even if you are confused by the daily rollercoaster of symptoms, it’s so important to “still reach out now and then to let them know that you care about them, that you’re thinking about them.”
Module 3: These Are a Few of our Favorite Things
Arguably the best medicine on the planet is good company, and it’s no different with a friend who has a chronic illness or disability. When I FaceTime with my best friends I want to hear about their lives because I am so exhausted by mine. Just because I am so sick I need a shower chair doesn’t mean I suddenly want to stop hearing about how my best friend is falling in love, or how my other friend’s ex is trying to log into her Instagram or drool over season 2 of Outer Banks. Morgan put it best: “Try to cultivate a safe and comfortable space where your friend can relax and be themselves, enjoy the things you’ve always enjoyed together.”
Module 4: Communication
As a friend to someone with chronic illness, it’s easy to feel helpless and overwhelmed. It’s also normal to feel like your relationship with that person is changing, or has to evolve and adapt. Lindsey observed that people living with chronic illness are often “strong people, so if you need to share with them that you feel overwhelmed definitely do that. Do it in a kind way. Their condition is not their fault… respect them enough to be honest… [because] you both need to communicate your needs, you both need to have patience and compassion for one another.”
Module 5: Take Initiative
Living with a chronic illness and disability is exhausting. I have pushed myself past my physical limits in order to participate in something with new friends. Yes, I might even stay silent about my disability in fear of being left out. If I do choose to disclose my disability, when friends take initiative to accommodate my wellbeing, like traveling to me or suggesting adapting our plans, it makes me feel supported and loved.
Another way to take initiative is to research your friend’s condition which can mean the world. Britta echoed this, sharing “I want to get your perspective, and I want to show you that I’m interested in your treatment and how this is progressing and how you’re feeling. Are you excited about this next move, or are you nervous or are you hopeful?” Asking a question about my condition, or sharing something you saw on social media about chronic illness is a great way to show you care.
Module 6: Put On Your Oxygen Mask First
As my health journey deepened and intensified, I had to be reminded that friendship is reciprocal. Morgan noted that to “make sure you’re being the best friend you can, you need to take care of yourself.” This is perhaps the most important lesson you’ll learn as a friend to someone with chronic illness or disability — sometimes setting healthy boundaries is the best way you can continuously show up for those you love.
When I first became ill, I feared I’d lose friends. I thought my friends might not want to weather the storm with me, and they did drift away, and I learned the hard way about something called “compassion fatigue.” But the friends who endure the storm are the most precious people in my life because they proved my fear to be unfounded.
Being friends with someone who has a chronic illness or disability oftentimes takes adapting, which can be a slow process and feel daunting, but that doesn’t mean those with chronic illnesses and disabilities aren’t incredible friends. If you don’t have a friend with chronic illness, maybe you have a friend or family member who lives with depression, anxiety, is grieving or is deeply lonely. I hope these lessons and my friends’ honest responses remind you of the importance of kindness to others and compassionate inclusion of all.
Catherine Ames is a senior writing about life as a young person coexisting with chronic illness in her column “Chronically Catherine.”