1. “Why don’t you just try exercising more and eating healthier?”
This is one of the most common questions I get asked when I first tell a friend that I have a chronic illness. And while it may be a well-intentioned question, the reality is, autoimmune conditions do not yet have a cure, and eating well and exercising is unlikely to make one’s symptoms dissipate.
While some patients may swear by a certain diet, such as going gluten-free, or adopting a particular exercise regimen, many others do not see a noticeable difference in their symptoms, despite extensive lifestyle changes. Also, such a sentiment often puts an unnecessary burden on the patient, who may feel like they ‘deserve’ their disease for not adopting ‘enough’ of a healthy lifestyle, when in fact, many scientists believe that there is a strong genetic component to autoimmune and other inflammatory conditions, which is beyond the patient’s control.
So please, the next time you think to tell someone to eat more kale to cure their painful rheumatoid arthritis- think again.
2. “Are you sure that’s what you really have? Maybe it’s just depression?”
When someone confides in you that they have a chronic health condition, they want to feel supported. The last thing they want is a friend or family member putting doubt into their mind about their health.
Furthermore, many patients go years from doctor to doctor seeking an answer about their health problems. When they finally get a diagnosis- although shocking and often devastating- there is a certain amount of relief that one experiences in at least knowing ‘what you have’ and the reassurance that what you’re going through is real. Asking someone “if they’re sure” about their condition, is essentially invalidating their health issues, right when that individual has finally found some closure.
Finally, asking if “it’s just depression” is simply unacceptable. Studies have shown that people with autoimmune conditions have a higher incidence of mental health problems such as depression. However, this shouldn’t be brushed off as “just” depression. Moreover, when I personally have been asked this question in the past, it made me think, ‘is this person saying it’s all in my head?’ This, in turn, made me more reticent about sharing health-related news in the future.
3. “It can’t be that bad, can it? You’re just exaggerating!”
For someone else to brush off your disease is the ultimate slap in the face. Many people with chronic health problems have an invisible illness, meaning that on the outside, they may look fine, but on the inside, they are suffering. Symptoms like chronic pain, organ and tissue damage, and fatigue are not usually noticeable to the naked eye.
Even health care professionals often don’t empathize with their patients’ complaints, telling them that they are exaggerating, or accusing them of being a hypochondriac. The result is that the patient may internalize their suffering, and not turn to their physician or loved ones for the medical help and support they need.
Unless you yourself have experienced the relentlessness of having a chronic condition, you can never know what someone with an invisible illness is going through. All you can do is listen and be there for them.