Last week, a post on reddit’s ‘Am I An Asshole’ section hit my Twitter feed, in which a man wondered if he was an asshole because he didn’t want to buy his wife some groceries for her to cook herself a comfort meal with, while she was dealing with an endometriosis pain flare:
As a person who has been dealing with chronic pain for nine years, my first thoughts were: ‘I want his flesh to be my next comfort meal’. I know, I know, I’m being dramatic and that is illegal, but while the man I will refer to as ‘endo husband’ thinks this is just about a meal that he’s missing out on, it actually goes much deeper than that.
Instead of getting the ingredients and offering to help her, or to cook the meal for her so that she could save the small amount of energy she had, old mate Endo Hubby decided to kick up a stink, piling stress -- a well known trigger for chronic illness -- onto her plate simply because he didn’t want to miss out on a home-cooked meal and couldn’t just order in for one night while his wife was in pain.
It speaks to his fundamental lack of understanding of what it’s like to actually live every day with a chronic illness, and displays a complete lack of empathy for what his wife is going through. The breezy tone of ‘she’s having a flare up’ followed by his insistence, even after being told he was an asshole, that maybe ‘everyone sucks here?’ implies that he has never really bothered to learn how to actually support his spouse in her chronic illness, that she will be dealing with for the rest of their lives together.
So, for him, and for anyone else with a person who has a chronic illness in their life, here’s a list of ways to actually support a loved one with chronic illness.
If you’re in a relationship or friendship with someone who has a chronic illness, ask them about it. It’s not going to go away, and the more you know about what they’re going through, the better you’ll be able to support them. What does your everyday pain feel like? How does that differ from a flare? What do you do to manage it? This will likely give you insight into how much your loved one’s chronic illness affects their day-to-day life, down to the smallest decisions.
Do further research
Once your have an idea of the conditions your loved one is dealing with, read up on it. Let’s be clear, though: the reason you’re doing this is for your own understanding, not so that you can then come back and suggest yoga or any other often suggested form of therapy. It’s incredibly important that you recognise that your position is not to find the miracle cure. If your loved one is a woman, it’s also good to read up on medical bias against women so you can get a better understanding of what she’s up against.
Ask what you can do to be helpful
The easiest and most effective way you can be helpful is to simply ask “what can I do to help when you’re in a flare?” Whether it’s cooking dinner, driving them to an appointment, doing some extra housework, anything that lightens the load and helps your loved one keep that energy that would otherwise be spent will be greatly appreciated.
One of the best things you can learn to do is to read the room. For years, I had an acquaintance who would complain to me about how tired they were. They didn’t have a chronic illness, they didn’t do anything to address their terrible sleeping habits, they just loved complaining. Everyday, I would have to hear about how tired this person was, when I was doing everything I could to tackle my chronic illnesses. The point is, don’t be like this former acquaintance of mine. It’s not that we don’t care about what you’re going through, or that you don’t have the right to be tired or sick as well. But when you’re talking to someone who deals with a chronic illness, take an extra moment to consider your circumstances of your loved one and whether they compare.
No touching without consent!!!
This should go without saying and is a solid rule for all human interactions but here’s the thing: for certain chronic pain problems, being touched without warning can trigger a pain flare, anxiety and all kind of internal chaos. For me, because my central nervous system is so on edge all the time, if someone surprises me, jolts me, startles me even with the lightest of touches, all of that can amp up my already-stressed system. Obviously, this is the kind of thing that you should ask your loved one about, but generally you should just not be touching people without their consent.
Be patient and understanding
An unfortunate reality of having a loved one with chronic illness in your life is that at some point, their chronic illness will get in the way of your plans together, often at very inconvenient times! I once had to skip my own birthday holiday because of a pain flare. Your loved one doesn’t want to be cancelling on you at the last minute. It’s far more likely that they left it to the last minute in the hopes that the flare would subside and they’d be able to go have fun. In moments like this, the best way that you can be supportive is just to be understanding and empathetic.