“I wish I had that”

and other things NOT to say to someone who is sick.

The title of this post comes from something I’ve heard three times in my life now, the first time from one nurse to another who had just returned to work after a bout of a very nasty GI bug.  “Oh you’ve lost so much weight!  I wish I’d caught that!  Haha!”  The next two times I’ve heard it, it was also in a coworker context but this time directed at me.

Don’t say that to me.  It makes me wish you had it too.  And believe me, that is not a nice wish.  It also makes you look like a shallow, clueless a-hole who completely lacks the ability empathize.

I suspect people sometimes stumble into saying stupid shit because they just got a TMI moment.  And for anyone out there reading this who’s had one, consider this.  If you are taken aback by knowing TMI about a coworker’s digestive process you might consider that the answer might not be “my doctor says I poop rainbows!” the next time you ask about a chronically ill coworker’s day off for a medical appointment.  Now, if you happen to just work with someone who comes in with slide shows of their colonoscopy, well, you have all my sympathy and my blessing to say whatever stupid shit you need to say to get away from them as quickly as possible.

So, other dumb shit not to say to someone with a chronic illness:

Don’t tell them about the latest vitamin megadosing that you read about in a promotional pamphlet in the health food store as if it is going to be the miracle fucking cure.  In fact, unless you have the same thing (or something quite close) as the person you’re talking to has, try to keep your big helpful suggestions about medicine or herbs or vitamins or magnets to a minimum.  I extend that permission to health care professionals who have specialized and up to date knowledge of this particular thing or people who have truly been heavily involved in  caring for someone with the same thing.  Sure…I would love to hear if you, a fellow migraine sufferer or husband of one, has found a wonderful drug/tea/innocuous and inexpensive alternative therapy that helped significantly.  But no, I don’t want to hear that your father in law has migraines and he takes excedrin migraine and it is so helpful, why don’t I just take that?

Because then I either abruptly end the conversation and you notice and think I’m snubbing you or, if the conversation is to continue, I need to tell you I have gastritis and reflux and then you say “duh….what’s that” and now we’re down the fucking rabbit hole.

Don’t say that if they exercise (or exercise more, or exercise better) they would feel better.  No, really, your super slow motion yoga is not something I can do. Walking makes me sore, and sick.  For days.  It makes me not able to do things like my laundry and food preparation and work.  So I choose which needs to be done.  And I do it.  That makes me responsible and grown up.  Not lazy and not depressed and not devil-may-care about my health.  When energy and comfort are precious resources, they are guarded carefully.  If you were living tight on cash and someone who was well off came in and told you something like “you know, you should just treat yourself.  I know I always feel more productive when I go buy myself a new designer handbag!”, you’d probably, even for a moment, entertain thoughts of telling them to shove that handbag up their ass.  It’s the same idea with non-fatigued people giving advice about exercise to someone with a chronic (and fatiguing) illness.

Don’t say “you’re still sick?”  No, seriously.  Don’t.  Just don’t.

Don’t say “wow that’s a lot of pills” or “that’s too many pills”.  Nope, it’s not too many.  It’s maybe not the right ones because the right ones don’t exist yet, the ones that will cure them or at least make all the symptoms STOP without any side effects at all…. And until they do, it’s just going to have to be that many pills.

Don’t say “I get bad headaches too!” to someone who has migraines and expect that you’re really connecting with them….unless you have a condition like migraines, cluster headaches, or other major league shit.  A bad headache is not a migraine.  Similarly, a person who has good reason to think they might have skin cancer and is waiting for the results of a biopsy is probably not going to be super reassured, buoyed, and/or supported by your story of how you once saw a dermatologist to have a simple wart removed from your toe.  Esophageal strictures are not the same as occasional bouts of heartburn that can be treated with a tums, side effects from chemo are not like when you were pregnant and had morning sickness, endometriosis is not the same as “some bad cramps”, the “fatigue” part of chronic fatigue is not just feeling sleepy.

Don’t ask “so what’s going on with you (healthwise) these days?” when the setting is not conducive to a nice long, uninterrupted, safe feeling chat.  I’ve had a good friend do this to me twice now and it sucks.

Some general tips:  You know that old standard, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing?  We could add “if you can’t say something helpful” into it too.  Also, if you can’t talk with empathy and honesty about someone’s health for the love of god don’t pry into it.  And even if you think you can, don’t solicit that sort of thing in a situation that all but precludes talking empathetically and honestly about someone’s health matters (like oh, say, work).  If you do find yourself in a conversation about health with someone who is sick and you are not comfortable, a polite “oh that sounds so difficult for you – I’m sorry you’ve been going through all this” is truly alright to say, then stop.  Or change the topic.  Or ask if there’s anything you can do (but only if you mean it).

So, for my readers with chronic illnesses…what do you wish people wouldn’t say or would say differently?

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  1. Wow! What a post! Some people really are ignorant, and some people just don’t know what to say. We know the difference though, don’t we? I once had a friend ask me how I was feeling and I told her something about feeling better than I did last week. She waved her hand at me and said “oh, you’re always sick!” I could have slapped her! I hate it when someone asks me when I’m **going to get better** so we could go shopping or go to lunch or some other ridiculous thing that I haven’t been able to do in ten years!

    For the most part I think most people mean well, they just don’t think befre they speak

    • It’s worse when its a friend or family member who says something like that.

      I agree…I definitely think that most people aren’t trying to be cruel or nasty. And some of these things are definitely more in the “I’m sure you meant well” category than others.


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