Many illnesses and disabilities are invisible to the untrained eye. Life with a chronic illness can be all the more isolating when old friends misunderstand your daily challenges. Healthy friends who choose to stick around are invaluable sources of support. Discerning between the right and wrong ways to offer support may be confusing for you as a well-meaning friend. Think about the following ideas for supporting your friend with an invisible illness.
1. Learn About Their Illness
Explaining their invisible illness over and over may be an exhausting and frustrating experience for your friend. Try to do your basic research after they explain it for the first time. Look for disease awareness and research organizations that may have resources for newly diagnosed people. Reading fliers or watching videos that are made to inform new patients with illnesses like dysautonomia can give you a glimpse into their invisible reality. It can be encouraging for your friend to know that someone cares enough to learn about their invisible illness.
2. Don’t Make Assumptions
If you have questions or doubts, don’t assume that your first assumption is correct. Many prevailing ideas about health and disability in society are incorrect or lack nuance. Invisible illnesses are often diagnosed at the end of a long and difficult medical journey, during which your friend may have been dismissed or insulted by several trusted parties. Be the person that follows their lead and comes to the table with genuine curiosity and care, rather than judgment.
3. Ask About Accessibility Needs
Access needs for people with invisible illnesses vary widely. Ask about your friend’s access needs before your next hangout or event. Relatively common access needs include parking near building entrances, finding ramps instead of stairs, taking elevators, identifying potential allergens in environments, and reducing background noise during conversations. It’s okay to ask whether your friend needs to use a mobility aid.
4. Include Them in Group Plans
People who have little experience with chronic illness or disability may think that group activities are off-limits, but that is often not the case. Give your friend the chance to say yes or no to the same activities that you would invite them to join if they were not chronically ill. Remember to keep accessibility in mind and only share your friend’s invisible illness status with other people if your friend decides that they are comfortable with you doing that on their behalf.
5. Laugh Together
Laughing together and being silly is a vital part of a healthy friendship between two people at any age. Stop yourself from asking constant questions or telling your friend how to manage their invisible illness when they are choosing to use a significant amount of energy toward having fun. Let go of stressors and watch a funny movie or play a new board game.
6. Be an Appointment Buddy
It can be helpful for a friend to accompany a chronically ill person to important medical appointments, even if you stay in the waiting room. Offer to be an appointment buddy for your friend or take care of their pets for them on long hospital days.
7. Eliminate Ableist Language
Ableist language implies that having a disability or illness makes a person worth less than someone that does not live with such a condition. It may use their lived experience as a joke or negative descriptor for other things, and that can feel grossly demeaning. Evaluate whether you use ableist words and phrases in your language and make an effort to replace them with more accurate descriptors.
8. Be Flexible
Understand that your friend may need to cancel plans at the last minute, more than once, and that event is not a sign that they do not value your time. Symptoms of invisible illnesses may fluctuate day-to-day and your friend could go from attending a concert with you one day to being flat on their back for a week.
Making a mindful effort to be a good friend to a person with an invisible illness can improve both of your lives.