Now that you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness, how do you talk with someone about it? First off, let’s talk about a major reason that people decide not share that they have a chronic illness.
Fear of Judgement
Up until recently, you prided yourself on having a certain reputation or image prior to diagnosis. Now you struggle to see that same person when you look in the mirror. You used to be the person who supported everyone else before you became ill – often called the “strong one.” Now that your health is poor, you have racing thoughts (i.e., “Will they think I’m no fun anymore? What if I have to cancel on them again? I don’t want people to think I’m lazy. Will I lose my job? How will I keep up with everything I used to do?”).
These fears hinder people from getting the support they need after diagnosed with a chronic illness. Consider the pros and cons of telling anyone about your chronic illness. Oftentimes the fears we have may not happen, but it takes facing that fear to know for sure. Ultimately, what others think of your health is not important. How you support yourself through it is what matters. So, if sharing the news with someone can help enhance your quality of life, then go for it.
Here are 5 tips that can help you share with confidence:
1 – Learn more about your chronic illness...
There is a lot of information to take in after a major medical diagnosis. You may not feel that you know enough about it to confidently share it with others. That’s okay! Time will help you learn more about the condition and how to manage it effectively. In the meantime, continue talking with others who are more informed about your condition (i.e., medical provider, others with the condition). You can even choose to take a family member to your next appointment so that they can ask questions. Take notes on how your body responds day-to-day to provide to your doctor as needed. In the instance that someone asks a question about your condition that you can’t confidently answer, feel free to say “I don’t know” or “I’m still figuring that out myself.” Focus more on what you DO know, and go from there.
2 – Find healthy ways to cope with your feelings…
The emotional toll of a chronic illness takes time for you to adjust. After all, it makes sense that it’s hard to talk about your condition when you’re still accepting the news. Conversations about it can feel like you’re re-opening wounds that are barely healed. Find ways to help yourself relax (taking deep breaths, journaling, meditation, thinking positive thoughts, watching a funny movie/television series, sitting in nature or reading).
When sharing with others, don’t worry about whether or not you get emotional, because that will happen. The goal is to support yourself as you share.You will be more likely to get through the conversation calmly if you are able to center yourself as much as possible. This is not the time for other unhealthy strategies (i.e, stress eating, substance abuse), as those strategies are likely to make you feel more stressed and sick over time.
3 – Allow them to time to take in the news..
Be prepared for the person you’re telling to become emotional. Yes, they may become vulnerable just as you likely did when diagnosed with your chronic illness. Their reaction may look like crying, shock/disbelief, worry, sadness and anger. You might think: “What am I supposed to do if they cry?,” “I can’t handle their pain when I have my own to deal with!,” “I don’t want their pity; I want their support.” They may need a little bit of time accept and cope with this news and reality, just as you did. If their response is overwhelming for you, revisit your coping options to support yourself. Give them a moment to compose themselves so that you can move forward TOGETHER.
4 – Decide how/when you want to share the news.
Disclosing that you have a chronic medical illness can be done in several different ways (casually stating it: “I have XYZ” in conversation, talk about it over a meal, schedule a family meeting or make a phone call to deliver the news personally). Some conditions may require immediate treatment and disclosure, so you may not have the time to think this step through as long as you’d like. However you decide, remember to go with your gut and be as specific as necessary to meet your needs.
5. Consider how they can help.
It’s important to know WHY you are sharing this information with someone before doing so. For instance, someone might tell an employer because they need to be off from work temporarily for treatment. You may determine that you could use help with certain tasks or even ask someone to accompany you to scheduled treatments or medical appointments. Or simply, you may just be overwhelmed with the news and need someone you trust to confide in. Whatever it is, just remember to be specific of ways that they can support you. The clearer you are, the better likely they can fulfill your requests.
Reach out for Support
As a therapist (and person with my own chronic medical conditions), I’ve observed people step up for their loved ones – even when the worst was expected of them. These situations can bring people closer together and clarify what’s most important in life. Yes, it’s possible that not everyone will respond in ways that you’d prefer. However, the ones that you need will show up!
If you remain unsure about how to talk with your loved ones or acquaintances about your chronic illness, you are not alone. In addition to speaking with your medical professionals and a therapist (as mentioned before), join a local support group (led by a therapist or held in online social media groups). The support groups will allow you to share experiences with others in similar situations. Remember, your chronic illness does not have to isolate you – it can connect you. Reach out to someone today!