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A beginner's guide to friendship with someone who is chronically ill

Updated: Jan 30

Friendships can be hard, especially when someone you are friends with is experiencing something difficult like a chronic illness. Sometimes it’s easy when we don’t know what to do to just do nothing. Included in this article are first steps towards trying to be the best friend that you can be to someone battling a chronic illness.

I’m convinced that having a chronic illness is like being stranded on a deserted island sometimes—and not one of the nice islands that everyone would like to be stranded on from time to time. I’m talking about a dry, bare, survival mode activated type of island. Having a chronic illness can be tremendously isolating.

I have a rare genetic disease called hereditary angioedema with normal-C1, or HAE for short. HAE causes severe, sometimes life-threatening episodes of swelling. Each attack can vary in symptoms of nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and severe pain. The swelling can cause seemingly easy everyday tasks to become very difficult. There have been many times where my swelling has led to lengthy intensive care unit (ICU) stays in the hospital. Whether treating at home or at a healthcare facility, swelling attacks can be very isolating.

I remember when I first started having attacks when I was 11 years old. Doctors had no clue what was going on with me and I constantly lived my life in fear of the next attack. It took a toll on my family and my social life as fear of the next swell controlled what I could and could not do. After two years of misdiagnoses, I was diagnosed with HAE at thirteen years old.

After years of isolation and battling chronic illness, I have come up with a beginners guide to being the best friend you can be to someone with a chronic illness.

  1. Burst their bubble. Go sit with them. Don’t let them get lost in their isolation bubble. It can be hard to ask a friend for help with a chronic illness, but know that your chronically ill friend needs you. Even if it’s just for 15 minutes, do your best to visit when you know they are going through a tough time.

  2. Communicate persistently. Whether it’s a text, a phone call, or a handwritten note, communication goes a long way in any friendship,especially a friendship with someone who has a chronic illness. Note that your friend with a chronic illness may not be able to communicate as frequently or consistently when they are going through a tough time, but don’t let that discourage you from reaching out and trying.

  3. Be an encouragement. Sometimes whenever an illness rears its ugly head, it can bring with it discouraging or even depressing thoughts. Use your voice to be an encouragement to your friend. Remind them of their strengths, share motivational quotes, and listen whenever they talk about how they are feeling. Remind them of what is true and point out any negative thoughts that may be stemming from a bad day or hard time.

  4. Check on them. This one seems obvious, but as time goes on, a chronic illness can become “normal” to the people who interact with the person with the illness. Remember that even if something happens frequently, it doesn’t make it any less difficult for the person experiencing symptoms. So check on them. Frequently. Ask how they are. Ask if you can do anything to help. Just check on them.

  5. Be a helping hand. Sometimes when someone is battling a chronic illness, it can be difficult to do even the basics. As their friend, do your best to be observant of ways you may be able to help out. Whether it's bringing a meal, helping clean or simply just being around—try to notice the ways in which your friend may need you, but may be scared to ask for help.

  6. Don’t lose empathy. No matter what, always remember that having a chronic illness is no easy feat. Whenever your friend loses their temper, has a breakdown or simply doesn't want to talk, do your best to remind yourself it likely has nothing to do with you and everything to do with what they are going through. Try your best to put yourself in your friend’s shoes and don’t lose empathy.

  7. Remember that you’re only human. Try your best, but at the end of the day, always remind yourself that you can only do what you can do. While you may not be able to heal your friend, simply trying your best to be the best friend that you can will have healing powers beyond what you comprehend. Try your best and your chronically ill friend will notice and appreciate your efforts.

Whether your friend has a chronic illness or not, the above steps can make a true difference in any friendship when acted upon. All friendships can be hard, especially when your friend is battling a chronic illness. Don’t lose hope, put in your best effort, and watch as your friendship blossoms into an unbreakable bond. And to those who have a chronic illness: show grace to your friends and do your best to communicate what you need to others. Nobody’s perfect, but we can all try each day to be the best we can be.




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