Everyone hates falling sick. It’s a universal truth – there’s nothing fun about being bedridden for days on end, sniffling and cursing the changing seasons or that guy on the Metro who wouldn’t stop sneezing over your shoulder. Soon enough though, you’re up and running again; that week just another blip on your radar. But for a certain person I know, that one week has become their every day.*
In the past few years, chronic diseases have been on the rise, especially in the developed world. Scientifically, many factors have been blamed – diet, genes, less focus on exercise, stress, and so on – but the fact is that cancer, heart disease, asthma, diabetes, autoimmune issues like lupus and other chronic diseases are at extremely high levels. As stated by WHO in this Reuters article, they may be a bigger threat than infectious diseases – not only in the developed world, but also in the developing world. What makes this worse is that they’re striking progressively younger people, robbing them of what should be their healthiest and happiest years.
Science is constantly making advances, working on developing cures and improving treatment regimes. Awareness and acceptance, however, are lacking when it comes to chronic disease. Socially, chronic illness is often hidden, and with good reason: it’s not easy to deal with. From my personal experience, it’s exhausting, both mentally and physically. The concept of a chronic disease is ill understood by the general public, especially in a society where you’re expected to push yourself to your absolute limit. A person with a chronic disease has a much lower limit – push them beyond it, and it could wreak havoc on their already delicate health. “You’ll be fine,” doesn’t work in this case – they’re not always fine, and implying that they will be perfect sometime soon can strike a nerve. Instead of trying to get to force them into doing something they can’t, you could always try to cheer them up by buying them a small present, or visiting them at home often if they can’t get out for a while. You can cheer them up without fussing over them (unless they like that), because low as they might feel, they also wish for normalcy.
For a young person, it’s also bound to take a toll on your social life; the activities many of their peers pursue are simply beyond their physical limit. You may end up feeling like you’re missing out on a lot of the normal twenty- somethings’ life, when there’s a chance you’ll fall ill out of the blue. Christine Miserando describes this daily struggle beautifully via the Spoon Theory. A sick person does not have the luxury of choices, and this can result in frustrations, breakdowns and even clinical depression, which often accompanies chronic illness. They also have to contend with the constant presence of the disease – a diabetes sufferer, for example, can never forget their insulin, an asthma patient must constantly carry their inhaler, and a lupus patient cannot forget to take their steroids/immuno-suppressants. Additionally, they often face the phrase ‘You’re too young to be this sick!’ or ‘You look too good to be sick!’ That is, unfortunately, the burden of an invisible, chronic illness.
It’s not all doom and gloom, though. A chronically sick person takes nothing for granted. They learn to savor the happiness in meeting someone for a cup of coffee, or being able to walk their dog without getting tired. The good days are lived to their absolute fullest. A trip to the beach, with the smell of salt in air, might be something other people take for granted – not so for them. They appreciate the little things, and definitely the people who stick around. With no time for superficiality, the relationships formed are often a lot more meaningful – as described in the Spoon Theory, you really should feel lucky if a chronic illness sufferer chooses to spend time with you. They’re consciously choosing to give you part of their very limited daily time. Chronic illness often also teaches you to be at peace with yourself and slow down a lot more – in turn making you appreciate just how amazing the world is, something most people miss with the current pace of life!
A lot of this, of course, is taken from my own experience with a young person suffering from a chronic disease. I could’ve gotten some things wrong as everyone’s experience is different, and there’s definitely a lot more that could be said on the subject. However, if you have someone suffering from a chronic illness in your life, or meet someone who does, I hope this gave you some insight and helped you empathize. Understand their limitations, appreciate their efforts and support them to the best of your ability, especially if they’re someone you deeply care about.
*I’ve chosen not to specify my relationship to them for anonymity’s sake.