Isolation NOT Necessary

Person A: "How have you been?"
Person B: "I have not been well. I am in a lot of pain and my body has been doing some strange things."
Person A: "Oh. I am sorry to hear that BUT at least...." or "BUT it could be worse" or "So anyway, how about that weather...."

Oftentimes people do not know how to respond to comments made about physical suffering and the emotions that accompany it. It is very hard to witness health problems in others because it serves as a reminder of one's own mortality and fragility, and this creates anxiety. Therefore many times people do not really want to hear how a person who lives with chronic physical illness feels, despite actually caring or loving that person very much. The person asks how one has been because s/he really does care; however, that same person may also have a very hard time tolerating what is heard.  S/he may just want his/her loved one to be ok, partly because of love for the person and partly because of her/his own existential fears about the fragility of human health.

Imagine what this kind of interaction is like for the person who lives with the illness. A person may truly need to share his or her feelings about what it is like to live with the illness. This person may want to speak genuinely about various components of having the illness, including the not so pleasant ones. It can be lonely and a person can end up experiencing a sense of isolation. For example, in the fictional scenario above, Person B may want to share with Person A what strange things his/her body has been doing, as well as what emotions these physical changes bring up. Unfortunately Person A tries to avoid further discussion of unpleasant content, which leaves Person B alone with his/her true feelings.

For those living with chronic physical illness it is imperative to express to loved ones the need to be able to talk about all experiences that come along with living with the illness. Sometimes people are just unaware that they are avoiding certain conversations, and surprisingly confronting people on this issue may actually lead to a more fruitful exchange of feelings. Perhaps the other person may be able to share with the person living with the illness as well, and the two people then have the experience of being there for each other. It is easy to make assumptions about why people do or say what they do or do not; however, oftentimes these assumptions are proved wrong when actually addressed in conversation.

For loved ones of people living with chronic physical illness, try to imagine how the person living with the illness feels. That person is already alone in carrying the physical illness; but s/he does not have to been alone in all of the emotional experiences that come along with it. Yes it is extremely difficult sometimes to hear about all the fear, anxieties, and suffering that comes along with chronic physical illness; however, tolerating the difficulty will be a great gift to the person living with the illness.

Not all people have the ability to be able to listen to some of the darkness that comes with living with chronic physical illness. This does not mean one needs to give up and hold all unpleasant feelings alone, while only showing the optimistic positive ones. This just means that if you cannot talk to one person about these things you keep searching for a person that you can speak to about these things. After all, at times you may actually be feeling optimistic and want to talk about certain positive things going on...in this case that person who could not tolerate the unpleasant things would be a perfect person to speak to. Everyone has a role that they can play. The bottom line is, be active. Do not allow yourself to fall in to a pattern of isolation. Not all people are the same and if one cannot give you what you need, find another. Ultimately there are always support groups and psychotherapists who are available if this becomes too much of a challenge. You never have to be alone. Isolation is NOT necessary!