The writer of this article has first-hand experience with chronic illness, having lived with it for over ten years. She hopes that the article will help those supporting and caring for young people in their homes and families who too have chronical illnesses like her. Her experience started with stomach-related problems, which eventually progressed to a burst stomach ulcer. She was hours away from death and thankfully, the operation was successful. Today, she still struggles with chronic illness but is able to manage her symptoms and continues to fight to remain active in the community.
The reactions from family and friends over the years was mixed. Some were supportive, whilst others didn’t believe that such a young person can suffer from chronic illness. It damaged her self-esteem to the point of her battling depression.
Five years later, she remains positive and has successfully overcome depression. It has now become her passion to help others.
Illness is one of those topics we like to avoid because let’s face it, who wants to be ill? Just talking about it is enough to dampen the mood. But what about those that are actually living it, those who struggle to get up and ready first thing in the morning, like everyone else? The old and young alike suffer and it’s a sad reality that we’re generally more accommodating to the old who are chronically ill, than to children or young adults.
Youth is associated with energy and vitality so anyone who differs from the norm is usually ignored. Thus, the young are often misunderstood, leading to an erosion of their self-esteem. The Psychologist Toni Bernhard notes:
‘Other people simply don’t believe that a young person could possibly suffer from a condition that might be chronic.’ [Psychology Today]
Many of us know of someone in this situation and some of us even have a family member or friend who suffers. Aside from immediate family, how many of us understand how to effectively show our support? Here are four ways how:
Visit the sick, feed the hungry and free the one who is imprisoned (unjustly).” [Sahih Bukhaari]
It’s a sad reality that young people whose lives revolve around their illness can feel isolated and depressed, especially as their fit and healthy peers are busy studying, working or going out with friends. As one sufferer comments:
‘I don’t feel normal as I’m always unwell and indoors. Life feels at a stand-still. I wish I could be like everyone else.’ [Anonymous]
You can help your family member or friend by visiting them and putting a smile on their face. Numerous reports and studies ‘confirm strong social and emotional support is a powerful stress buster that improves health and prolongs life’. [Stress.org]
People with chronic illnesses face many challenges, both physically and mentally. In young people especially, the thought of living with it for their entire lives can be overwhelming. It disrupts their lives, sometimes to the extent of being unable to do things like work or pursue marriage. With this in mind, it is important to be tactful when discussing their illness. Let your loved one explain to you their situation, whilst you openly listen. Britt Renee, who suffers from chronic illness explains:
‘When someone reaches out to just talk, try not to relate by using examples from your life in a way that marginalises their current pain, challenge, or victory.’ [The Mighty]
A good way to empathise is to let them know you are praying for them, a small comfort which goes a long way and acknowledge what they are saying.
The unpredictable nature of chronic illness means that every day is different, with good and bad days. On a good day, take your loved one out somewhere, maybe to the local coffee shop or on a trip to town. It will help them to feel reconnected to the outside world. Not only will you be helping them to feel better, but it will also help you too. As Time Magazine notes:
‘Giving back is as good for you as it is for those you are helping because giving gives you purpose.’
On a bad day, going out might not always work out and plans can be canceled at the last minute. At times like this, it’s better to stay smiling and to reassure your loved one that it doesn’t matter and that their well-being is of paramount importance. After all, quality time can still be spent together indoors. Or they may not even want to see you that day, not because of you but because of the internal battle they’re fighting. They simply don’t have the energy to see anyone. Being understanding on these days is important, as Nancy Mc explains:
‘Receiving support on the bad days, which are 90% more frequent in a month, is of more worth to us than on the good days.’ [Huffington Post]
Your support will make them feel valued and will enable them to stay open with you in the future.
It’s unfortunate that only a sprinkling of people regularly stay connected with their ill, loved ones from my experience. Granted, the situation is different than keeping in touch with healthy family and friends but trying to understand them will make it easier to navigate in the long term. Sometimes, they just need a phone call or a text message to let them know that they’re not alone and that you’re thinking of them. As one sufferer states:
‘It’s hard to keep up with friends. Just receiving a text message on a random day is enough to lift my mood.’ [Anonymous]
To stay in touch over weeks, months and years is key. Let us show our loved ones that they are not defined by their illness and deserve just as much of our time as everyone else.
As the saying goes: ‘Every little bit helps.’