Managing Chronic Illness: With A Little Help From Our Friends

7 ways to navigate friendships while living with chronic illness

Two women laughing together.
Photo credit: Shutterstock

1. Understand and accept your changing needs, and realistically evaluate who can help you.

Chronic illness inevitably changes friendships. Some become closer, while others might fall away or become strained. Some people will surprise you by standing by you when you least expect it. Accept what people are able to give, as well as what they can’t.

2. Communicate your feelings and needs honestly.

Many of us have always prided ourselves on being self-sufficient achievers. With the onset of illness, we may have to rely on others in new ways; it can be difficult to acknowledge these needs to ourselves, let alone communicate them to others. We may feel deficient, embarrassed, or frightened; perhaps we’re afraid others will be resentful of our neediness or that they cannot understand.

3. Maintain a balance of friendships with other illness sufferers and those who are not sick.

Sometimes we need the comfort and understanding that only another person with chronic illness can provide. As fibromyalgia sufferer and doctor Mark Pellegrino, MD, writes in Fibromyalgia: Up Close and Personal, “When people with fibromyalgia first meet each other, there is almost a magical ability to immediately open the doors that lead to our…innermost sensitivities, fears, and hopes.” We can build new friendships through support groups and online communities.

Two women sitting side by side on a shore..
Photo by Briana Tozour on Unsplash

4. Understand that others might be struggling with problems and feelings of their own.

The impact of chronic illness on our lives is so vast that at times we tend to forget that we ever had problems before we were sick! It’s helpful to remember that others have challenges and worries that have nothing to do with their feelings for us.

5. Resist the need to over-explain or apologize.

Living with a chronic illness involves constantly evaluating the impact that various activities might have on our pain, fatigue, and other symptoms. It often requires difficult choices about whether or not to engage in an activity that others do without a second thought. Only you can know which decisions to make in order to best manage your symptoms. If you are unable to do something or, for example, have to change plans you’ve made with friends, it’s important to communicate this, but don’t feel obligated to provide multiple explanations or apologies. Suggest an alternative plan or invite others to go ahead without you. Try to stay positive in spite of your limitations. Avoid offering long-winded details about your illness and its constraints.

6. Handle unsolicited advice with as much grace and confidence as possible.

One challenging aspect of communicating about our illness with friends or acquaintances is responding to others’ attempts to “fix” you. For those of us with chronic illness, at times it feels like everyone we meet has a suggestion to help our pain and fatigue or a story of someone they know who was “cured.” Keep in mind that a friend may have the best intentions: it’s hard to see a loved one suffering, and it’s natural for some people to want to fix it.

7. Provide positive feedback about things that are helpful.

Chronic illness can be devastating in so many ways, and sometimes there is nothing anyone can do to take the physical and emotional pain away. At times we may feel overwhelmed with needs that cannot possibly be met; but we should realize that sometimes we can turn to others for support. Our friends may have a genuine desire to be helpful but simply not know how.

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Writer with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia helping others to survive and thrive with chronic illness. Lifelong learner, dog mom, therapist-to-be.

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Lisa Lorden Myers

Writer with ME/CFS and fibromyalgia helping others to survive and thrive with chronic illness. Lifelong learner, dog mom, therapist-to-be.