Have you ever wanted to punch a friend in the face because you felt like they just didn’t get it? By “it” I mean your chronic illness. 

I understand your rage! Off the bat, I can tell you that: 

One, you’re not alone.
Two, please don’t punch your friend…
And three, it’ll hurt your hand more than it’ll hurt their face. Just saying.


But I do get your frustration here. Especially since ignorance is usually the reason we feel so misunderstood.

Statements like: “But you don’t look sick,” or “I broke my arm, so I understand your pain,” become the bane of our existence.

And when it comes from the people that mean the most to us. Our friends. It’s harder to accept because it confirms one of our biggest fears: 

Nobody gets us anymore. 

If this is you, don’t despair, I’ve learnt a few valuable lessons that have salvaged my friendships in the last 11 years – and I’m about to break each one down for you right now.

Think of this article as your friendship and chronic illness ‘starter pack’. 

The first lesson starts like this: New body, new mindset, new dynamics. 

If you want to be a good friend when you’re chronically ill: You’ll need to redefine what that means now that your health demands, limits and abilities have changed.

Just remember: Before you can be a good friend to someone else. You need to make sure you are good to yourself.

Your friendship dynamics could change. Accept it. 

Your life has changed. It’s not for better or worse – it’s just a shift. And part of dealing with this is learning to adjust when it’s necessary.

man pushing woman in a wheelchair

With friends…

It’s necessary. 

Besides a large chunk of your time now dedicated to medical commitments; you’re also just exhausted from living and breathing because your body is using all its energy to fight for survival.

No, you’re not always going to want to go out.

You’re not always going to want to hold conversations.

And you’re not always going to want to see people.

And you’re going to have to think about what that means for your friends. It may not feel like a priority all the time, but for your own happiness, it needs to be as high a priority as you can make it.

A few things to consider about your friendships now

People who you know through societal groups (like running buddies) may fade into the background if there isn’t more to your friendship than your one common interest. 

Friends who have more superficial ties to you, may not feel like it’s worth sticking the friendship out when things get rough.

You’ll probably find one or two friends that show a level of devotion and love you didn’t think was possible. When the sh*t hits the fan, these are the friends holding up the umbrella. 

And the rest of your friends, will just become a little bit lost and confused...

They love you.

They want to help.

They want to be there for you.

They just don’t know how to go about it. 

Educate Your Friends About What You Need 

If you know how to start off the topic of your health in the right way, you’ll find you can both learn and grow a lot as friends. 

I don’t mean to sound like every relationship counsellor in the world here, but communication really is key. 

And each piece of advice I mention from here will explain to you, how you can actually improve it.

Like I said earlier: It’s not that your friends don’t want to help you, it’s that they simply don’t know how to. 

Here are some things you can tell a good friend if you’re trying to break the ice and explain the basics of what you need: 

  •  I’m fighting for my life every day and there’s still so much I still have to learn about my health. More than advice, what I really need right now is for you to hold my hand and have my back. 
  • If you have a suggestion, please be humble when you share it. I need you to know that each chronic illness case is different. There’s no guarantee what will work. 
  • If you don’t hear from me, if I’m silent, forgetful or grumpy – I need you to know it has nothing to do with us. It’s genuinely not you – it’s me! (A dash of humour never hurts.) 
  • We may have to change the way we do a few things. But it’s not for better or worse, it’s just a change! And if you have any questions about my health, I need you to know you can ask me. 
  • I appreciate the patience you’ve shown me. I am in pain and I’m tired - so you just need to know that I love you and I am fighting the good fight right now.

Be Clear About Your Limits 

Boundaries are an important part of any relationship, and you need to set some down when it comes to the activities you do together and your availability now that you have a chronic illness.

So there are these two words… and they’re quite powerful because they’ll help you set clear limits with others: YES and NO. 

women doing dancing class as friends

It took me a while to use them properly. And not feel guilty, shameful or disappointed every time I uttered one. To be honest I still struggle sometimes. But then I remind myself something: 

I set my limits for a reason. My health. 

I say NO when I need to say no. I don’t owe anyone an explanation. 

If I don’t set my limits. My extended commitments will suffer too. 

The two basic limits you need to make clear with all your friends are: 

The activities you do together and your availability. 

Both will depend on: 

  • How much pain you’re in; 
  • How much energy you have; 
  • What mood you’re in; and 
  • What obligations or responsibilities you have to fulfil later.
  • Yes – for the most part how you feel is unpredictable and dependant on the day. But you need to respect that everyone else’s lives don’t change because yours did. If you’re a little considerate of your friends time, it’ll help them plan around the hum-drum of daily life and make a point to see you. 

    Three ways to see your friends more often

    1. Pre-empt when you know you’re going to be in pain from physio or treatment. If you know you’re seeing the doctor on Wednesday, try to see your friends the day before.
    2. Whenever you are invited to an event and you can go. Remind your friend that you’ll only be able to confirm for sure sooner to the time because it depends on your energy and pain that on that day.
    3. Take the initiative to invite friends over to your house, where you feel comfortable and relaxed. But try to insist on a time you need to finish up before they get there. 

    Stay in Touch 

    While some aspects of your friendship change, staying in touch should not. It may not be as often, but whether it’s a call or talking face-to-face, this is important. 

    friendship analogy with two hearts drinking wine happily

    I think you’ve got the point: communication is that important. I’m not saying you need to speak to your friends all the time, just make the effort when you can. 

    Because I’ve been doing this for a long time. I figured out some really creative ways to keep in touch, have fun … and not screw my energy levels up for the rest of the week. 

    Fun ways to keep in touch with friends

    Remember that catching up doesn’t have to be in person. It doesn’t even have to be over the phone. 

    There are so many ways you can keep updated on each other’s lives and do it in a way that’s not exhausting to you. 

    Here’s what I recommend:

    1. Grab a coffee over video chat. Put aside 15 minutes to have a quick catch up. Make sure you both get your tea or coffee ready and just click the green button.
    2. Send videos and voice notes about the important stuff. Or even the not so important stuff. It just needs to be something you want to share.  I love anything to do with fur babies so I get inundated with animal videos and I couldn’t be happier.
    3.  Try the 3-point chat rule. This is a thing I started which I believe needs to be named after me! I goes as follows: We all are busy or tired and want to know how our friends are without all the small talk.

      The 3 point chat solves this issue because you basically just say hi, list 3 the three most important events (or points) in your life right now and then get the same thing back from your friend. Photos are always a bonus. Simple and effective!

    Try to Understand Your Friend’s Point of View

    Just as much as you want your friend to understand you, you need to take the time to reciprocate the gesture. In the end, you both need to be on the same page to make things work as friends. 

    You’ve just been to the doctor and your news isn’t the best. You feel like crap so you call one of your friends to unleash all your frustration. 

    They tell you that they have also had a rough day because they’re having relationship troubles. 

    Don’t deny it. This has happened to you before where your immediate thought was: “YOUR ISSUE IS NOT THE SAME AS MY ISSUE.”

    But I learned pretty quickly that it’s the wrong way to think. Because if you’re expecting your friends to learn to empathise with you – 

    You need to remember to do the same for them in some situations. 

    Three invaluable lessons when it comes to your friends

    Take an interest in your friend’s life

    You need to show your friend that, even if you can’t be there for them as much, you still want to know what’s happening in their lives. 

    And there are easier ways to follow through on commitments that you can implement. (When brain fog / exhaustion sets in.)  For example: Group chats; shared photos; and meeting up in small groups so you get to see everyone in one go. (One on one can be very tiring.)

    And try to make mental notes to send your closest friends a message every week just to see how they are. 

    If they tell you about an important day coming up - jot it down in your diary so you remember to wish them luck etc. 

    Choose your battles wisely

    No, you and your friends may not be dealing with the same set of issues. But you need to think about whether it’s really worth bringing to everyone’s attention. 

    Remember that you overcome ignorance with education. So when they say or do something that hurts you – always talk them through it. 

    We all have different issues that we face at different times. Don’t be so quick to judge someone who’s never struggled with their health. 

    Each one of us has our own set of life experiences to deal with. Someone else’s may seem silly or insignificant to you, but it doesn’t make it any less real to someone else. So, keep calm, and just listen. 

    You’ll probably find that:

    1. Like you, your friends just want to be comforted and heard. 
    2. Your own experiences have started to make you wiser, stronger and more resilient than others around you.

    Forgive them

    There are many reasons you may be upset right now with a friend. But if I were to guess, it’s probably because:  

    1. You don’t feel understood. 
    2. Because you don’t feel understood, it’s led to your friends being inconsiderate about your needs. 
    3. When you talk to them, you just don’t feel like they get you any more. 
    4. They’re expecting too much from you and it’s left you completely drained and lost. 
    5. You’ve realised they’re just not ready to go on such an emotional journey with you since you barely hear from them anymore.

    Like I said earlier: 

    We can only expect so much from others who haven’t travelled a similar path to us. So we should always do our best to educate, show empathy, and be patient. 

    1.  So long as someone is giving you advice – even if it’s crap – it means they care. 
    2. So long as someone wants to see you - no matter how impractical - they still want to see you. 
    3. So long as someone doesn’t bad mouth you – it means there’s no hard feelings. It’s just not the right time to be friends and that’s okay too.  

    Stop Feeling Guilty. You Don’t Deserve It 

    It’s time to stop saying “sorry”, and start saying “thank you”. 

    marina being a good friend when you're chronically ill

    It’s horrible when you have to cancel on your friends (again). It’s even worse when you know it becomes a regular occurrence. 

    But if you start to find a healthy way to explain what you’re going through to your friends. The good ones will stick by you. Even when you need to take one for the team and call it a day. 

    Just remember that if you have to cancel or postpone anything. You shouldn’t have to say you’re sorry… 

    With the right friends, you should only have to say, “thank you for understanding.”

    About the author, Marina

    Marina Wildt is an experienced health and wellness writer, chronic illness warrior and founder of The Discerning You. In the last 12 years, she has gone from being paralysed in a wheelchair to living a full life alongside her conditions and now she wants to share all the practical advice that she has learnt with you.

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