by Meri Everitt
Hello, I’m Meri. I have had a chronic illness for 25 years but in the last few years my health has taken a downward turn and I’m still waiting for a proper diagnosis.
I was in hospital for 11 days recently with a flare up. I was chatting to one of the nurses and she said ‘everyone gets sick at some point’ which touched me deeply. It sounds so simple but it’s so true. I immediately remembered the Buddhist concept engrained somewhere in my mind of the 4 sufferings of life: birth, aging, sickness and death. These are the fundamental realities of being human.
I have wanted to write a ‘guidebook’ for friends of people with chronic (or any) illness for some time. Finally here I am with a platform to share my years of experience. So here we go… and remember that just making time to read this already shows what a great friend you are.
So what can you bear in mind when you arrange a friend date with your poorly friend?
Please don’t treat your friend any different than anyone else apart from adding extra compassion. Even if their illness doesn’t look serious, or the person looks ok in that moment, bear in mind that spending time with you may be the only social event they have in the diary this week/month and that they will pay for it afterwards with pain and fatigue. The main thing to concentrate on is for them have plenty of fun without feeling guilty.
Practically, it’s a good idea to hold doors open, offer to order for them if there’s no table service and find out where the bathrooms are.
Your friend may have to cancel last minute. Please be kind when this happens and use phrases like ‘I understand, is there anything I can do?’ Please don’t stop inviting your friend to events (this happens more than you may realise). There may be questions asked that seem trivial to most people, like details about the venue and who will be there, step free access and where the nearest parking is. Please try to be patient as the more comfortable your friend feels in advance the more enjoyable your time together will be.
You could also offer to pick your friend up and let them know you would be happy to take them home whenever they want.
Remember, socialising doesn’t have to be outside of the house
Your friend may find one to one socialising easier. It might even be a good idea to offer to visit them at home if they keep cancelling plans out in the world. Please remind your friend that it doesn’t matter if their place is a mess or if they are in their pjs. Maybe even suggest a pyjama and movie evening and bring snacks or order food to remove that extra pressure we all feel when someone visits.
Conversation tips for when you hang out
Talk about easy relatable things like a TV show you both enjoy for example. Bear in mind your ‘normal’ life and struggles maybe seem slightly alien or could cause even more of a feeling of disconnection with everyday life. At the same time it’s great to talk about things that aren’t illness and doctors as so many conversations end up based on this, although they may need to get some of that stuff off their chest before being able to talk about more everyday topics.
Don’t be afraid to talk about yourself
Something you might not expect is that you can open up to your friend if you are struggling. They understand the struggles of life more than anyone and have the compassion you need. Don’t feel like you are putting it on them, they will tell you clearly if they are too unwell to help. Everyone likes to feeling needed and it’s important for self-esteem, especially if someone is unable to work.
Laughter is the best medicine
It’s so crucial to laugh. Remind your friend of some funny experiences you have had together. Share silly stories from your life. If talking becomes too much for your friend suggest something like watching a comedy together or a silly kids film.
Think before you text
If you want to check in with your friend by text it can be better to say ‘hi I’m thinking of you and feel free to give me an update if you have the energy.’ Rather than the classic ‘how are you?’ which feels like such a difficult question to answer.
‘Are you feeling better now/today?’
‘You’re doing so well with a tough situation.’
How we ‘look’ is a sensitive subject
This is a plea to ask you to be compassionate about how we look. Normal everyday clothes may feel very uncomfortable when much of one’s life is spent in sweats and pjs. In addition, chronic illness sufferers often suffer from allodynia, which is pain of the skin. Personally I can try on numerous ‘outdoor’ outfits before I find something that doesn’t make me cry in pain and want to cancel. My final outfit may not be fashionable and items may not match. If your unwell friend is comfortable in their clothes just go with it. Once I’m done with the time and physical effort it takes to wash and dress, the last thing I have the energy to do is try to perfect my hair and make up. If I’ve made it out to meet a friend at all it’s taken at least a few hours of exhausting preparation and that doesn’t include the mental gymnastics. Where do I park? How far is the venue? Can I use my wheelchair there? Should I take my stick? Will the seats be comfortable? Which meds do I need to take with me? The list goes on and on and on!
The fear that how we look won’t match up to expectations already exists as a stressor for all women, never mind when it’s added to the immense effort it takes an unwell person to leave the house.
Lastly, just enjoy yourself. Try to behave like you used to and be the person your friend loved when you first became friends!