Life with a chronic illness can be tough – trust me, I would know. I was born with a collection of complex heart defects, have gone through more than ten major operations and have had more hospital trips than most people have had hot dinners. However, it’s not all doom and gloom as I have some of the most supportive friends that have helped me through the hard times. They’ve done a pretty good job of keeping me sane and happy, so here are some tips to help you do the same for those in need:
One of the best ways that you can support your chronically ill friend is by learning about their illness. Now, I’m not suggesting you sign yourself up for a medical degree, have an intense research session on Google, or even read a book – this would be pointless, as all conditions and illnesses mean different things to different people. Don’t just assume that you know all about your friend’s illness – ask them about it (politely) and I’m sure they’ll explain what it means to them within the limits that they feel comfortable with. This can also be helpful if you ever find yourself in an emergency.
(Actually) Be There for Them
It is all well and good sending a friend a message or a bunch of flowers to let them know that you’re thinking of them, but what I have found the most helpful and meaningful is when my friends actually check in with me and see how I’m doing. I’m the worst for pretending that everything is fine, when really everything feels like it’s falling apart, and that is because I just want to be a ‘normal’ 20-year-old. If you ask your friend how they’re doing and they say, ‘yeah, I’m okay’, please just ask them a second time, as it really will make a difference.
Keep Your Usual Plans
As I have already mentioned, all I ever want is to be a ‘normal’ 20-year-old. Just because I have a chronic illness doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be dancing the night away in Jesters and eating a 2 a.m. Manzils with my pals, but it does mean that sometimes I can’t. If your friend is having a particularly rough time of it and they can’t do the things they usually love to do, find other things that you can do together. For example, I have been in the hospital frequently over the past year and have had major FOMO over small things, like missing meals out with friends and cinema dates, so my friends brought the Nando’s and the films to the hospital… keeping exactly the same plans, in just a slightly different location.
Find the Humour/Silver Lining
This one is quite subjective, as some people may not like making jokes about their illness. I, on the other hand, feel like it helps me get through and accept the hand I’ve been dealt. In my eyes, illness is funny because it is one of life’s oddities. Personally, there is nothing that my friends and I find funnier than skipping all of the queues at all of the theme parks because ‘Amy’s heart’s a bit c**p’. We find it hilarious that when they visit me in the hospital I am the youngest on the cardiac ward by at least 50 years, and it makes our day when we get a 2 for 1 deal on festival tickets because one of them gets to go free as my carer. It is okay that we find these things funny because it’s not how normal life should be, but it is what it is for us.
One of the most difficult things that I have had to deal with as a young person with an invisible chronic illness is that sometimes I can pretend that I am okay – I can wear tops that cover my scars and lippy that covers my purple lips – but sometimes I can’t or choose not to. Sometimes it gets too hot to wear a high neck top or I can’t be bothered to plaster on a face full of makeup; sometimes I get too breathless and I have to use a portable oxygen machine, meaning that my illness is very visible. If your friend has an illness that is visible, or sometimes visible like mine, just reassure them, let them know that they’re rocking their scars/wheelchair/walking stick or anything else that presents them as ill. Most importantly, remind them how awesome they are and that they are so much more than what people may see them as!
It is understandable that sometimes you may not be sure how to support your chronically ill friend – it is a big thing and they will understand that. Hopefully though, I have shown you how easy it can be. As long as you treat your friend with kindness, and add a bit of normality to their life where you can, they will be more than grateful. Friends that have been there for me when my health has taken a wobble have been the main reason I am where I am today, and they haven’t done any Mother Theresa style gestures or carried out extraordinary acts of kindness or generosity. They have simply just been understanding and, most importantly, a source of snacks, gossip and chats about nothing, and it really is just as easy as that.