We’ve all been there. Recently you’ve been sick. Maybe you were even in the hospital. But like—whatever, that’s just a normal week for you what with having a chronic illness. Most days you don’t even think about how many doctors you see or medications you have to take. You’re just living your life, man.
Now you’re out at your Uncle’s fiftieth. You’re looking snazzy in your new maxi dress. But here comes your cousin to kill your vibe and to let you know what he thinks of your recent health issues.
The Curious Crony—The Guy Who Doesn’t Get It.
With no preamble he asks, “so why are you like always sick?”
Sure, it’s not the most delicate way of asking about your chronic illness—but how are you supposed to respond to that? You’re not going to literally break down the intricacies of how Crohn’s disease affects your body right here in the living room.
When you swoosh it around in your head, the question feels more like a dig than a matter of curiosity. You kind of want to tell him to fuck off.
But you shouldn’t and here’s why: no matter who you are, no matter how masterfully you handle your disease—people are not going to “get it” from their peripheral standpoint. After all, they probably don’t hear about what a great day you had at work last week, or how you finally potty trained your daughter after six months of cleaning up puddles—all they hear is how often you’re in the hospital.
And for other people that’s a bizarre thing. To be in the hospital and then home and then at work?
How weird to integrate serious illness into a normal life?
It’s hard to imagine such a reality.
And people don’t want to imagine that kind of reality—not for you or anyone else. It’s a pretty shitty visual. So they’re going to rationalize it in their mind in the only way they know how.
So they might be thinking: You are not that sick—because how could you handle life and illness when they can’t imagine staying in the hospital for longer than three days?
TIP: They’re coming from a place of misunderstanding.
The thing to remember in situations like these, when people come at you curiously—and non-aggressively is that they’re coming from a place of misunderstanding, not judgment. Don’t project your own embarrassment about your disease onto other people. Listen to their words and try to remember that what you go through is an incredibly unique human experience. You have a duty to educate people and a chance to teach them how to treat you when they’re asking: what is your life like?
It’s very easy to get offended by questions and even tones of curiosity and disbelief when you’re being questioned about your chronic illness. It’s easy to remember all of the times that people have doubted you, doctors have questioned you, and these scars can seem very raw and very real. But not every person you encounter in your family, at a party—or just in your day-to-day life is a jerk. They just don’t get it.
This is a time to educate. Whip out those handy-dandy business cards that link curious folks to a website that explains the whole disease. If they want to read it, they will. If they don’t, you’ll never have to know. But it’s time to thank them for their concern and head to the bar where someone can appreciate your talent for eating 30 maraschino cherries without stopping to breathe.
The Pity Party People—People Who Feel Bad that You Feel Bad.
Being Jewish and part of a Cuban-Jewish family I go to parties of close relatives what feels like every other week with what feels like 1000 people all up in my business. I’ve heard just about every conversation opener and just about every comment—the good, the bad, and the downright rude.
I generally get the same vibe from long-time female family or family friends. It’s one of extreme caring and kindness, and genuine pity. Which can leave you feeling like someone just ugly-cried all over your new sweater. Granted, pity is a lot less offensive than someone practically spitting in your face about what a bullshit artist you must be—but pity is still a pretty grody vibe to deal with at a what’s supposed to be a fun party. So how do you respond to pity and even just genuine remorse about your situation?
First I like to feel grateful. How lucky am I to have people who feel so strongly that I should have a good life that they feel upset when I don’t? So I thank them for thinking for me, praying for me, taking time out of their day to check on me with whatever emotion they come at me with. Even though pity can churn my stomach a little bit and make me think things must be a lot worse than how they often feel—I know that people who pity me can’t understand how people with chronic illness must cope with daily life, and so they must think it’s an endless spiral of non-stop misery. Which hey—sometimes it is. But I’m not exactly slitting my wrists here. I still have cable…
So thank them for their concern, and let them now about one or two great things that’s happening in other parts of your life. Maybe you just mastered digital solitare—and do they play solitare at all? Or maybe you just got a promotion at work, isn’t that great news? Pity may be genuine, but it’s easy to distract others away from it.
Solution Sally and Her Many Stupid Questions—The Chick Who Thinks She’s “Been There” (Spoiler! She hasn’t.)
You think you’re the only person at the party who hasn’t been able to eat solid food for a week? WRONG! Sally has been there and she’s going to tell you
what she did to improve her life in two simple steps: first she bought some over the counter medicine, then she stopped eating thumbtacks. Problem solved! What do you mean that method didn’t work for you? You must have done something out of order.
There’s ALWAYS going to be one person who thinks they know best—better than you, your doctors, or the 10 specialists you saw at the Mayo Clinic. Sally has the answers and you’d be an idiot to not try it Sally’s way.
Of course, having already tried it Sally’s way ten years ago when your problems first began—I’m sure now you’re stuck taking cocktail napkins with the name of her daily vitamin on it.
So how does one shut Sally up?
Be firm and very clear:
“Thanks Sally, but I saw all of those methods in my search results twelve years ago, and I can assure you I’ve tried every gluten-free, dairy-free, fungus-free, and locally grown product on the market. I’ve done a lot of research—both western and holistic. I’m thrilled these methods worked for you—but I can assure you that I wouldn’t have grappled with these symptoms for this long if one of those had worked!”
The Straight Up Douche Bag—Who Knows For Sure That You’re an Actress
Oh, you know who you are. You’re 100% convinced that the attention-whore gently disentangling herself from Sally’s emotional and insistent grip is a
big, fat, bold-faced liar. And here she is to tell everyone once again how much misery and angst her disease has brought her.
But fuck her, right? You’re going to make sure everyone at this party knows how you feel about her mental illness and how inconvenient and offensive her lifestyle choices are to you. You’re a straight up douche bag, alright, and you’re sick and tired of the drama queen with her dumb pale face and her 42 bottles of pain killers under the sink and her pointless, excessive hospital stays. And everyone in this room who isn’t giving her the cold shoulder right now?
Enablers. All of them. Big, fat, gullible enablers—giving the chronic illness princess all of the love and affection she wanted in the first place—drinking it all up like those maraschino cherries.
After a while they’ll all see what a lunatic she really is. Until then, you’re just going to heap your realistic judgment on them—from afar. Because after you blew up at the princess at Yom Kippur her mom won’t invite you back to dinner. Whatever. You’re going to judge her from over here. And you’ll keep judging her until you’ve completed isolated yourself into a corner where you’re right—everyone else is wrong and they’ll see. They’ll all see.
Note: This post is mostly about people that you meet peripherally at parties–for relatives who are close to you, might want to check out this article.