I know it shouldn’t surprise me anymore–the mean, insensitive, and downright ridiculous things healthy and able-bodied people say to those with chronic illness. It shouldn’t, but it still does.
About a month ago, I came across a post on a chronic illness forum, where a man posted about how someone said he was sick because he didn’t have enough faith in Jesus.
This understandably hurt his feelings and angered him, and it prompted me to ask this question on Instagram:
“What’s the weirdest reason people have given you for being ‘stricken’ with your illness?”
Here are the jaw-dropping answers I received:
1) “You’re sick because you don’t have enough faith in Jesus.”
This is downright horrible because it’s insulting on so many levels. First of all, faith and religion are very personal matters, and nobody should feel they have the right to casually toss off that kind of comment. Second of all, religion, faith, or lack thereof have nothing to do with whether a person is sick or not. Zip. Zilch. Zero.
Making a person with a chronic illness feel guilty for not praying enough, not going to church often enough, or not having the amount of faith that YOU feel they should have is a terrible thing to do.
People living with a chronic illness already feel guilty as it is. They already struggle with pain, depression, anxiety, and isolation. They do not need you to make it worse by telling them that they are a failure in faith.
2) “You’re suffering now because of evil you’ve done in a past life!”
Oh, Lord. Really?
Again, this goes right along with the faith thing. Personally, I believe in reincarnation and karma, but, that being said, there are plenty of people who do not believe in such things, and what you’re saying sounds like literal nonsense to them.
Also, so what? If somebody’s fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome is some type of punishment for them being an evil tyrant in 1556, how exactly would knowing that help them now??
3) “You’re not positive enough!”
This one. Of all the dumb things people with chronic illness have to hear on a daily basis, this has got to be one of the worst. Again, people who live with a chronic illness often experience depression, loneliness, isolation, and anxiety. Asking somebody who lives like this to flip on some sort of “positivity switch” is like telling a person in a wheelchair that if they tried harder to walk, they could.
Yes, positive thoughts are helpful. Science has even shown that a positive attitude towards life can help reduce pain and stress while prolonging life span. However, telling someone they are not positive enough will not make them suddenly BE positive. In fact, it’s only going to make them feel worse.
So…knock it off!
4) “You don’t eat enough!”
Chronic illnesses are very complex and multifaceted conditions. They are hardly ever brought on by just one thing such as not eating enough. A person will not develop an autoimmune disease, rashes, horrible pain, allergies, muscle weakness, and/or chronic headaches just because they don’t eat enough.
Can not eating enough make a person sick? Sure. It can cause malnutrition, which can bring on some serious symptoms. But, if you know the person you’re talking to has a diagnosed condition, the fact that they are not eating as much as YOU think they should has absolutely nothing to do with it.
There’s no connection. Like, none.
5) “You eat too much!”
Eating too much does not give someone an autoimmune disease or a chronic pain condition. However, inability to gain or lose weight can be SYMPTOMS of a chronic illness.
For example, there are people who can eat half their weight in food every day and still not gain a pound (Crohn’s disease, IBD, hyperthyroidism) or people who eat very little and have trouble losing weight (hypothyroidism, diabetes, metabolic syndrome).
While retaining excess body weight can bring on some health problems, that, in and of itself, is rarely the CAUSE of a chronic illness.
Also, a majority of people living with a chronic illness already experience body shame because they are simply too tired to exercise regularly or their condition prevents them from losing weight. Telling someone who is already suffering that they eat too much (which may be one of the few things that brings them genuine pleasure in life), is not in any way helpful.
In fact, you’re doing more harm than good.
6) “You didn’t go outside enough when you were younger.”
Huh? OK, let’s say that a lack of fresh air, sunlight, and exposure to germs did make me more predisposed to develop a chronic condition. Do you have a time machine I can borrow, so I can go back to my childhood and lie in the sun and eat dirt? Didn’t think so.
Yes, being outside is good for your health, but how do you know that the person you’re talking to making feel horrible about themselves hasn’t been sick since childhood? I was. I was terribly sick from the time I was born to the time I was 22. I never had energy like the other kids, and forcing me outside just tired me out more.
It was gluten that was slowly killing me, not lack of fresh air. However, I did find out I had a vitamin D deficiency when I was in my late 20s. Lack of sunlight? Nope. My celiac disease prevented me from absorbing nutrients from my food.
Again, we can’t change the past anyway, so how is it helpful to bring it up now?
7) “You’re just depressed.”
Ah, yes. The blanket diagnosis of every human being who has ever confessed to having a chronic illness. While depression is something that many people who live with a chronic illness can struggle with, it is not the REASON they have rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or multiple sclerosis. In fact, it’s often the rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, or multiple sclerosis that’s CAUSING the depression.
Also, depression is a real illness. A real, psychological and physiological illness that causes measurable changes in the brain, so nobody is “just” depressed. Even if that is the only diagnosis your friend or family member has, it should be taken as seriously as any other illness.
You wouldn’t say “It’s just cancer”, would you? Alrighty, then. Case closed.
8) “You just have anxiety.”
Ah, yes. The other blanket diagnosis almost every human being who lives with a chronic illness gets slapped with. OK, once more for the people in the back, anxiety is a real and serious condition. Even if this is the only condition your friend or family member has, it should be taken as seriously as any other illness.
That said, living with an autoimmune disease or a chronic pain condition can cause physiological changes in the brain, which can result in the development of anxiety. Either way, your pointing it out is not going to make the person suddenly hop out of bed, kiss you on the cheek, and skip merrily away into a field of flowers.
What you’re saying minimizes a person’s genuine pain. Quit it!
9) “You’re desperate for attention.”
Up yours! No, seriously. How dare you? I was one of the millions of people with an invisible condition who heard that almost every damn day of my life, and do you know what it did to me? It gave me PTSD (yet another invisible condition)!
As a woman on the autism spectrum, I am the very definition of “invisible condition”. I can hold a perfectly reasonable conversation, look people in the bridge of the nose (which makes it look like I’m looking them in the eyes), and I have facial expressions.
(Oh, and I can be snarky AF, in case you haven’t noticed.)
Well, I can’t be autistic then, can I? Wrong!
Each time I didn’t understand something or had a meltdown or experienced sensory overload (not to mention the horrible stomach pains, crippling fatigue, and chronic sinusitis everybody made fun of me for), I was told I was “making it up for attention”.
Don’t ever say that to anyone with a chronic illness. If you don’t believe them, you don’t believe them. Remove yourself from their life because nobody deserves to have their experience minimized and diminished like that.
They’re going through far too much already.
10) “You’re sick because your bed is too small and you’re tall.”
I’m guessing this isn’t a common one, but I had to include it on this list because it was the most unique and ridiculous of all the responses I saw when I asked this question. Wait…what? No. Just no. That’s not how that works. That’s not how any of this works.
11) “You’re sick because you’re a redhead/ginger.”
Again, what?? This was another response that made absolutely no sense, and, according to the person who said it, it came from DOCTORS, plural, meaning more than one! Where did these so-called medical professionals get their licenses to practice medicine, a Cracker Jack box?
12) “You’re sick because you eat [insert offending food here].”
OK, in my case, this was true. Because I have celiac disease, gluten was slowly destroying me. I have been an advocate for a gluten-free diet for chronic pain for a long time because it HAS been proven to reduce chronic pain and even put it into remission!
However, a person with a chronic illness isn’t sick BECAUSE of the food they are eating. Their diet may be worsening some symptoms, but it’s not the original cause. If that was the case, every single person who ate that food would be sick.
A better way to phrase a comment like that would be to suggest an elimination diet or a test for food allergies, but just telling them they’d be “cured” if they tried this or that diet is oversimplifying the problem and diminishing the experience of another person.
13) “You just want something to complain about.”
Really? If you think that’s true, you’ll be shocked to learn about the lengths we go to hide our chronic illness symptoms! If a person does talk about their symptoms, it usually means they are having a horrible flare day and just can’t keep it to themselves anymore.
Believe me, we are KEENLY aware of how we look to others when we discuss our symptoms, and it’s for that very reason that we rarely bring it up.
We do not enjoy complaining. As a matter of fact, most of the time, we are not complaining, we are venting and hoping for a little human compassion and understanding.
So, next time, try that.
14) “You’re sick because you don’t do yoga.”
While yoga has been proven to be very beneficial to people with all sorts of chronic illnesses, not doing yoga (or whatever exercise you suggest) is not the REASON someone has a chronic illness. That’s absurd.
15) “You’re not sick. You’re pretending!”
Seriously? Who the heck would go to the trouble of pretending to be sick for years or even decades, going to doctor after doctor, taking medication after medication, missing work, losing friends, and sinking into depression just for the fun of it?
Most people with chronic illness are actually doing the exact opposite…we go out of our way to pretend we are WELL.
Do us a favor, would you? Never say something like that again. It’s wrong on every level.
16) “You’re sick because you’re psychic and picking up other people’s energy.”
Say what?? Yup. This was a genuine response to my question.
Um…yeah. Sure. This goes along with the faith and past lives stuff. Believe what you want, but don’t go forcing it on others. Moreover, let’s say that’s the case. You got the cure? Lovely. Let’s all gather round in a circle!
17) “You’re sick because you don’t eat meat!”
Can someone get sick from not eating meat? Sure, it’s possible. After all, everyone’s body chemistry and nutritional needs are different. Some people can eat a vegan or vegetarian diet and be perfectly healthy where another person tries it and becomes severely malnourished. Me, for example.
However, that doesn’t make the diet itself unhealthy. It’s right for some and not right for others. Furthermore, some people don’t eat meat due to their religious beliefs, and that is as personal a decision as faith itself.
Moreover, avoidance of meat is not going to CAUSE fibromyalgia, chronic migraines, or colitis. It’s not that simple. It’s never that simple.
If it was, we’d have all cured ourselves with a cheeseburger by now and be worshiping neath the Golden Arches!
18) “You’re trying to manipulate others by saying your illness is worse than it is.”
How horrible! Can you really look at someone who is curled up in a fetal position on your couch, pale, shaky, and sweaty and tell them that? First of all, why? Second of all, HOW? Third of all, what benefit could it possibly serve?
After all, you’re not giving them the response you think they want. You’re sitting up there on your high horse telling them they’re trying to be manipulative. Well, it’s clearly not working, right?
People who live with chronic illness isolate themselves when they are feeling at their worst. I know I do. I don’t want the questions, the stares, the raised eyebrows, none of it. If I’m in a flare, I will downplay it, not talk about how painful it actually is.
There’s no manipulation involved, except for to try to look and act as healthy as possible until I finally get to go home, collapse, and stop pretending to feel better than I actually do.
The way people experience and talk about their chronic illness has nothing to do with you. Nothing. Your comments are not helpful, they’re harmful. You’re not giving “tough love”, you’re alienating an already isolated person.
If you don’t know how to treat a person with chronic illness, that’s OK. You can learn. Click on the link below to read my step-by-step guide.
Marionette Woman courtesy of Flickr/Victoria Nevland