A patient once told me, “Illness is a way to health.” This is a simple but profound concept. We have many responses and approaches to illness and health. Some of us use denial in order to cope. Others respond by feeling scared or overwhelmed. Anger and resentment are common reactions.
I handle illness by acting tough and invincible. I wish I saw illness as an opportunity for growth, but I rarely do until I am on the recovering side of a medical event. It is a lot easier to have a positive attitude when you are getting well rather than feeling crummy.
There are inherent strengths and weaknesses in all of these coping mechanisms. These approaches all work to some degree, but there are limits to them. Being strong is fine when we feel strong, but what about those times when we aren’t strong? Denial can be effective in the short run, but is difficult to maintain when symptoms cannot be ignored. As for always trying to look at the brighter side, it can feel like a failure on those days when we can’t see anything positive.
Coping mechanisms serve a purpose; they can help us survive. But sometimes coping measures lose effectiveness and become a burden. Moreover, chronic illness can be exhausting. Maintaining a role while feeling sick consumes a lot of energy—energy better spent on healing. This is true for patients as well as for those in the patients’ lives.
Here are some tips for patients, family, friends, and coworkers on how to survive being sick:
Patients: Allow others to help you. Ask for help, even for things you know you can do for yourself. Accepting the kindness of others is a brave and generous act. Be clear about what you need.
Caregivers: Respect the patient’s autonomy and boundaries. Ask if there are ways in which you can help. Be clear about what you can or cannot give. Do not give more than what is asked for or do more than a patient wants.
Patients and Caregivers: Find support. This is important whether you are a patient or a caregiver. Support groups can provide valuable information and insight. Some support groups are open to families and friends of patients.
Listen – really listen. Never assume that people act the same way in all situations. People act in a variety of ways when it comes to being cared for or in offering care to others.
Be respectful of self and others. Do not negate or discount the feelings of another.
Be honest, but compassionate. Be authentic; do not try to force yourself to be anything other than what you are. Talk about the illness and how it impacts you. Feel free to not talk about the illness. It is perfectly appropriate to talk about the ordinary side of life. Sitting in silence is a lovely way to be with people.
Keep life simple. Let go of perfection. Perfectionism can be harmful, for the healthy as well as those with chronic health issues. There are many paths to health. This is not a test and you cannot fail. It is acceptable to cry, be angry, to feel alone, or to feel numb. It is also appropriate to laugh. Just remember, whether you are a patient or part of the patient’s community, you do not have to do this alone.