The Isolation of Chronic Illness

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From the moment we are born we are wired to connect with others. It starts with our parents or caretakers and continues throughout relationships for the rest of our lives. Chronic illness can be intrinsically isolating and deprive us of the vital and healthy connections we all need. When Illness strikes it often creates a divergent reality where our thoughts, priorities, and routines revolve around managing our own wellness and preventing the affliction from controlling our lives. This creates a new normal that can make it difficult to relate to the lives we once had or to the lives of those around us. It does not help that chronic illnesses are often hidden and the people around us may not comprehend that illness can be constant, progressive, mercurial and incurable.  

It is also common to want to hide or protect those around us from the negative emotional or physical effects of our disease. A common protective measure is to come up with other excuses to avoid situations when an illness is the genuine cause of the evasion.  Chronic illness can leave us in a state of hopeless despair at our lowest points and while it may be perceived as a sign of strength to keep it all inside or put on a positive front, such courageous efforts often backfire and only increase isolation. One of the things I have learned through twenty years of chronic illness is that people are only capable of empathizing with what they can understand. If you give them straight and honest answers rather than protecting them from your reality they will be able to have a glimpse of what you endure and potentially be there for you as a friend or support.

It is also common to just want to avoid talking about our illness when we have an opportunity to lose ourselves in some fun or enjoyable company. This is completely understandable, healthy, appropriate and encouraged. You know your friends and family best and only you can decide how far you let each person in. I have worked with clients that have decided to send out an email to all of their friends and family detailing the impact of their affliction and others that have found it more helpful to tailor each conversation to each person.  People have different levels of comfort and ability to empathize with darker subjects such as illness. If we are going to be vulnerable ourselves it is often difficult when others just don't get it.  My advice is too not take it personally and know that while others may not suffer from your affliction, everyone is fighting their own battles and they may feel for you even though they can't express it. The simple act of letting people know is the important piece.

Chronic illness can deprive us of so much of our lives. It can attack our bodies, test our spirits, and consume our thoughts. It is so important to reach out, be honest, and bring others into our world that we trust; otherwise, the disease will not only deprive us of our health but also of the connections we deserve.