Often times when it comes to illness, we have a healing period that is relatively short. We expect broken bones to heal between 6 to 10 weeks, and people to get over the flu in less time. Chronic illness however, but the very definition of the word, is ongoing, and can last from as little as 6 months and as long as 22 years. When we see people that we haven't seen in a while, they tend to ask us how we've been, and if we like that person enough, we tell them that we've been ill. Often times it goes like:
Bob: "oh I had the flu about two weeks back and it was awful. I spent days on end in bed, sleep deprived with no appetite and my joints were aching like I had just been put through the wringer."
Mildred: "oh that's awful Bob, I'm so sorry to hear that! But you're okay now, right?"
If it were just the flu and Bob had gotten over it, he'd say yes. But when someone has had great trauma or a chronic illness, the conversation is a little different.
Mildred: "oh I was in that elevator mishap that happened last year and fell 5 stories. I was barely walking around for months, always in bed, couldn't sleep, had no appetite and my joints hurt all over. My joints were swollen, my skin was always too hot or too cold, I started developing these weird purple rashes on my side where I fell, and my hair was falling out. It was awful. Finally saw a specialist two weeks ago and they diagnosed me with RSD."
Bob: "oh my God Mildred, that's awful! But you're okay now, right?"
No Bob, Mildred has Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy, she can't work because of the pain, her once beautiful hair started falling out, and she feels like she's lost her identity. She might also have this for the rest of her life, and it's become a very hard thing for her to cope with, but Mildred hasn't seen Bob in ten years and she's not about to say what's really on her mind because even though it would be funny for some strangers walking by to see her get upset and go off on him, it's also none of Bob's business. He isn't in her life and hasn't been for a long time, and maybe Mildred doesn't want another person to treat her like she's made of paper and just wants a normal conversation that day. Whatever her reasons, I've compiled a list of responses I myself have used when faced in a similar situation, and if you have any additional suggestions, please send them my way so I can add them to the list.
"I'm coping with what I've got."
"This is a very complex illness and I just don't know."
"That's a loaded question, how about we talk about you instead?"
"I'm as okay as I'll ever be I guess, but that's a bit out of my control."
"I've got my support system and they're there for me when things get bad. That helps a lot."
"There are bad days and there are good days. Today is a ______ day."
"I wish I was better, but I guess we all wish that at some point. Like how penguins wish they could fly, but that'd be a funny sight huh?"
"Look, it's a bird! It's a plane! It's, a convenient distraction!"
Okay, maybe I've never used that last one, but man do I ever wish I did. Especially when complete strangers are asking me those questions. Now, what happens should you find yourself on Bob's side rather than Mildred? What happens when you find out someone you know had a chronic illness/invisible illness/ an illness you know nothing about? How can you react/ respond in a way that shows you care without being too probing? Yeah, I got you.
"I'm sorry to hear that. I haven't heard much about that illness/disease. I think I'll read up on it down more."
"I wouldn't wish that on anyone, especially not you."
"I'm glad I ran into you, and I wish you were in a better place health wise, but it's good to see you none the less."
"I'm guessing you have to take it easy most days, but you have to do what's best for your body."
"I hope you have the opportunity to take care of yourself because you deserve to heal. And even if you don't go back to your old normal, that's okay too, just take care."
It's no one's business how many times Mildred sees her doctor, what medications she takes, if she's tried yoga, or if she's trying experimental trials. It's one thing if Bob and Mildred have been best friends for the past five years and see each other regularly, and are comfortable enough having discussions about her illness. It's a whole 'nother ball game if Bob and her were neighbour's a long time ago and haven't seen one another for the past ten years.
Look, I get it, people have always been naturally curious and have been questioning everything since the ability to reason, but there are some topics that are just not cool to discuss unless in a proper environment. When in doubt, simply saying "I don't know what to say" is the best thing TO say because it gives them (Mildred) the opportunity to say what they're comfortable saying about their illness to you (Bob).
Until next time my Duckies and Spoonies!