A chronic illness is a medical condition that will last a long time or may even be permanent. There are lots of different illnesses that can be classified as chronic, like arthritis, diabetes, cystic fibrosis, cancer, epilepsy, chronic fatigue syndrome and others.
How do chronic illnesses affect a person? Some chronic illnesses, although permanent, vary in severity over time. Sometimes they get worse over time (degenerative conditions), sometimes they improve (as a result of treatment or just the illness running its course) and sometimes they remain stable. Many chronic illnesses lie dormant and then raise their head in an “acute episode” (when the condition temporarily flares up and becomes more severe).
How do I talk about it? People with chronic illnesses often feel isolated, both mentally (“Am I the ONLY one going through this?”) and physically (when they can’t always head out with friends etc). If your friend is happy to chat about their condition (and you’re comfortable with it) it may be worthwhile to find out what restrictions their condition might put on them and what you can do to help (particularly in those “acute episodes” mentioned above).
What if they don’t want to talk about it? If your friend doesn’t want to talk about things (and if they’ve just spent the past three days in the hospital talking about nothing else, there’s a chance they may not be in the mood), just letting them know that you’re willing to listen can make a huge difference (knowing there’s someone with an open ear to listen goes a long way in curing that feeling of isolation).
A few things to understand about chronic illness. Chronic illness can mean your friend has chronic pain and has to make adjustments to many aspects of their life. The following might help you understand what they’re going through:
- Chronic illnesses can affect a person’s mobility or independence and can be a huge adjustment for someone to make;
- Bad days really suck and the frustration can sometimes be overwhelming – some people aren’t as patient or relaxed as they usually are;
- Illnesses don’t always make sense. On Monday your friend may be fine, and by Tuesday they could be in tears with pain. “Flare ups” can start in a matter of minutes (e.g. Asthma attacks)…or may come on over days, so plans may need to be adjusted or postponed. Flare ups are often difficult to predict;
- If they seem to disappear off the social radar for a while, it may just be that they’re not feeling well at the time and not that they don’t want to catch up or go out;
- No two people are the same, even if suffering with the same condition. Don’t assume that your Grandma’s arthritis is the same as the arthritis that knocks your athletic friend around;
- They are still the same person. Illness doesn’t define a person.
Look after you. Remember, while it’s great to be there for your friend, it could put a strain on you. If the situation gets you down reach out and talk to someone.
Acknowledgement: This fact sheet was originally developed by youth and staff at ReachOut.com, a website that helps teens get through tough times.