Roughly half of the U.S. population lives with at least one chronic condition, such as diabetes, lupus, multiple sclerosis, chronic back pain, migraines, and others. So one would assume that most people know basic etiquette skills when it comes to what to say to one who is chronically ill.
For instance, we all know that you shouldn't kick the tire of a wheelchair someone is sitting in, so why is it okay to tell someone with an invisible illness, "You don't look sick to me."
Here are some ways to quickly annoy an ill friend, and possibly even destroy the relationship.
1.) Remark on her treatment. "I'd be sick too, if..."
"If I saw all those doctors ... sat around waiting rooms ... never had to get out of bed ... took all those medications..." "If I was as sick as you say you are I would be trying acupuncture, supplements, something natural." "Those doctors know how to cure you but they wouldn't make any money then."
2.) Tell her she needs to fight the disease.
When she makes a wise choice about her limitations and pacing herself, she doesn't need your motivational speech. For example, if she cancels plans on you, don't fire back with, "You are letting the disease win! You have to fight it. You have to want to be well! Be strong!"
3.) Get excited to go somewhere because you can use her disabled parking permit.
None of us wants these placards, and we use them on only the most painful days. If you are driving, we may ask you to drop us off and then park the car, so the spot can be saved for someone else who needs it. Don't insist to use it, jump out of the car, and smile haughtily at a passerby, and then brag to friends, "Guess where we got to park?"
4.) Say, "You are so lucky because..."
"You are so lucky because you don't have to work... You don't have kids. You are so lucky you don't have to travel." Or here is a common one, "You are so lucky to be diagnosed with this at such a young age." Um... okay.
5.) Tell her that her illness is caused by stress.
"You need to slow down, you need to cope better, you are under too much stress." Basically it sounds like you are saying, "Most people -- including myself -- can cope with stress fine, but you do so poorly at it, you've brought this disease on yourself."
6.) Call attention to her assistive devices.
"You don't really need that cane. I think you are relying on it too much." "Once you start to use a wheelchair, you will forget how to walk." "I am not going to push you, so if you want to ride you will need to just learn to drive a scooter." Her appearance is also up for grabs if you don't value the friendship. "I would just die if I had to wear those shoes. I love my heels too much." "Maybe if you put a little effort into your appearance you'd feel so much better."
7.) Tell her about the cure you heard about.
Trust me, she has already heard about it -- the water, the juice, the chocolate, the supplements, and yes, even the reindeer antlers and mushroom tea. You may feel the need to share what you have heard, but she will likely tune you out as "one of those people," especially if you tell her you are a distributor.
8.) Ask her how she is and then try to one-up her story.
"Oh, you don't know pain until you have had run a marathon." "You think you're tired? Try being a single mom, while working." "Oh, that is nothing! You won't believe what happened when my neighbor's brother's son had surgery!"
Watch your words. When you go to another country the culture and language is different. Words that you say at home may be considered impolite or even obscene. People have had different experiences and so they interpret your words differently. So it is in the world of the the ill.
When you tell a workout buddy, "Hey, don't give in. No pain, no gain, right?" they interpret it much differently than one who lives with a chronic illness.
Talk to your friend. Say, "I have realized there are times when I have said the wrong thing. Can you tell me some things that encourage you -- and what irritates you? I don't want to be one of those friends you would rather avoid."
It sounds corny, I know. A bit like an assignment a counselor would give you. But we all want to be acknowledged, validated, and understood. If you ask this, your friend may still fall over, but it will be out of her surprise, not because you insisted she leave her cane in the car.
Lisa Copen is the founder of Invisible Illness Awareness Week, celebrating their 10th year September 10-16, 2012. Join her at http://invisibleillnessweek.com for the 5-day free virtual conference and download a free 80-page ebook, "263 Tips To Do More Than Just Get By."
For more by Lisa Copen, click here.
For more on chronic conditions, click here.