Empathy & Tough Love Comes with Chronic Illness

In order to stay sane, I always try to find the silver lining in the world of chronic illness. I think one of the true blessings of being sick is that it has helped me to be more empathetic towards others.  I find that I can usually tell just by looking at someone if they are feeling well or not or if they are in pain without them even saying a word.  I had a customer recently who I could tell just by looking at him that he was in terrible pain.  When I smiled and greeted him and looked into his eyes, I asked him if he was okay.  He wanted to know what I meant.  I said, “I can tell that you are in major pain.”  He wanted to know how I knew because he said he always tries to hide it.  I told him that “I just know.  I can tell.” 

It is as if those of us who are always in pain or always suffering from an illness can only see in others’ eyes what we are feeling in our own bodies.  Most people just go about their day not paying any attention to the person they are talking to or looking at and probably not even thinking about whether or not they feel well or feel ill.  Because good health is usually taken for granted, seeing suffering in someone else’s face, or body language and eyes can only best be recognized by someone who has fallen prey to chronic pain or illness.

But empathizing with people does not mean that I pity people.  Pity is the last thing that MOST of with chronic illness want.  Of course, you will always have the ones who thrive on having people feel sorry for them and will do whatever they can to play the “poor me” card, but that is the minority of sick people.  Most of us are just trying to get through life and trying to be as normal as possible, even though our bodies keep telling us something different. 

But with empathy also comes a toughness that I think makes me expect a lot from other people.  I figure that if I am out here with all of the problems I have trying to achieve something, there is no reason why someone who is perfectly healthy should be lazy.  I guess that’s my own issue I have to deal with and I was told by a former supervisor that one of my downfalls was that I expected everyone to have the same kind of work ethic that I had.  I admit I haven’t improved much on that over the years but I’m a work in progress and always striving to do better! 

A quiet strength comes with chronic illness that only fellow patients can relate to.  We walk daily with this tremendous burden hanging over us, but we have to keep going because the world doesn’t stop, life doesn’t stop.  The bills still need paid and the kids still need fed.  We have had to muddle through a world where there is little understanding of what we think, feel, and deal with every second of every hour.  While there is little empathy given to us, we have been able to show plenty to our mutual friends suffering along side of us.  It’s a bond that is unbreakable.

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  1. Danease Gresch says:

    How many times have I thought the same thing Sandy. I’ve seen friends and family members complain about all they have to deal with on the job, in their lives and just with daily life struggles. Chronic illness compounds all those issues, yet I keep trying to push forward and live as normal a life as I can. I also see those lying around doing nothing and constantly complaining, not trying at all but expecting sympathy. To be honest, it angers me somewhat when I know how hard I have pushed and kept going in the face of terrible pain and debilitating fatigue. I feel like telling them they don’t have a clue since I know some of them just want to milk the system and in reality aren’t sick at all.

    Like you, I can tell when people are in pain or suffering. Those outside of the realm of chronic illness see us getting up every morning, getting dressed and putting on our makeup, trudging off to work or just performing daily tasks, and they figure we are fine. They wonder why we keep saying we are sick. It’s because they themselves have not been touched or have had to experience what we have dealt with for years. I am one who hates to wish bad things on anyone – believe me. But sometimes you just wish those same people would have to suffer with what we do for just a day or two. Maybe they would look at us differently. Maybe their empathy for those suffering with chronic illness would increase and this world would be a much more caring place to live in. But the reality is that nothing will change. That’s why it is so important for those of us suffering need to get into a support group and make good and lasting friendships with our fellow sufferers. I love the friendships I have made since doing this and I have learned so much about how to cope from them as well. I’ve been able to provide some help to others with their symptoms just using what has worked for me. I love to see them say something I used works for them as well. It’s a small victory but a victory nonetheless.

  2. Landon Donovan says:

    My father is suffering from severe head pain which caused great discomfort that puts it in a bad mood; your doctor receto Hydrocodone for this reason was signed to Findrxonline where he obtained his medicines on time.

  3. My I suggest a further resources to learn more about empathy and compassion.

    The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy
    The Culture of Empathy website is the largest internet portal for resources and information about the values of empathy and compassion. It contains articles, conferences, definitions, experts, history, interviews, videos, science and much more about empathy and compassion.



  4. Erin Canadian says:

    I have many of the same issues you have, both on the good and bad, LOL. I am TERRIBLE when it comes to my work ethic (I used to scrub floors BY HAND for my clients!!) and the fact that I expect more from others. I ought to expect more — I am showing up, working hard, and often taking home less money for it because I work shorter days! I’m also a widowed single mom — I have WAY more stress on my plate than anyone else who isn’t sick there.
    I don’t want pity — but I do want help sometimes. Not that I ever get it. My own sister felt that I should come & clean her house because she took my daughter for a week in the summer & “didn’t have time”. When I refused because my own house is in shambles, she convinced my grandmother (our family matriarch) as well as the rest of our family far away that I was just horrible and greedy and just a bitch in general. Most of my family no longer speaks to me because of her badmouthing over the years. However, I have noticed more recently that friends do offer to help (I’m horrible at accepting it, it feels like defeat), so I am going to call them all on it, and have an Organizing & Decluttering & Cleaning Bee — pick a random date and ask every one of my friends for 2 hours of their time to come help me all at once, then have some wine & cheese & other delectables to celebrate and thank them. I finally realized that I need to downsize my home, so need to get this one in shipshape to sell — I am really excited that I will NOT have 300 feet of sidewalks to shovel in the winter or a half-football field sized lawn to cut in the summer, or the huge garden that I USED to love growing things in (no energy to weed that much space!)

    Thanks for sharing this piece of you and your life. I am happy to know someone out there is so much like myself, not just in sickness, but in attitude, empathy and loving-ness :)

    • Hi Erin – It’s amazing how much we find in ourselves when we read about other people, isn’t it? It always makes me feel better knowing that I’m not the only one who has these thoughts! Take care of yourself and let me know how your decluttering project goes!

  5. @Erin: what a wonderful idea. The modern equivalent of a barn building party or a quilting bee! Good luck with it.

  6. I understand exactly what you mean. I am also a widow and a single mother. Most people just tend to ignore the fact that I have fibro symptoms. I don’t want pity either but it would be nice for the people around me to acknowledge what I have and at least have a kind word. I have a couple of friends who really try to understand. I am grateful for them. I know everybody wants to know why I don’t work anymore. I used to work three jobs. I never know when I am going to have a good day. I always say, “Lazy is when you don’t want to do something, it is not lazy if you want to do it but can’t”. I usually don’t post but this is such a great website. Thanks!

  7. Paula Tillery says:

    Great article Sandy. My best friend recently had to have surgery for carpal tunnel syndrome in her right wrist. She had lived with the constant pain from September until the end of January before giving in and having the surgery. I went down to her house one day to visit and I could tell she was in so much pain that her eyes were drawn and her hands were shaking. She had gotten to the point that the prescription pain medications were no longer working. It really hurt me to see her hurting so badly.

  8. Paula Tillery says:

    Debbie I am in the same position as you. I am a widow and am raising a handicapped grandson born with cerebral palsy. He is 16 and is getting so big that it is hard to get him in and out of the house in his wheelchair. Most people never think of the struggles I go through each day. Fortunately my mom and my sister see and understand how difficult it is. My mom helped me when she was able and still does sitting for me when absolutely necessary. And my sister is wonderful but she lives 50 miles away but when we do get together she tries to take most of the load off of me even though she has osteo-arthritis in both knees.

  9. I can SO relate to this post!! I have fibro and severe osteoarthritis in most areas of my body. It is SO difficult to get up and go to work everyday, takes everything I have to do so!! I get really aggravated when other/younger workers slack off (and are allowed to), while I bust my butt, which causes my great pain and exhaustion!! I, too, have found that I can spot someone in pain, especially fibro! It is a look in the eye and facial expression that we just recognize. I always say its like looking in a mirror!! I am so glad that we have these sites to share in.

    • Hi Betty, I’m with you on your comment – believe me! I think what is hardest is how lucky these younger/healthy co-workers are and they don’t even realize it. Here we are – sicker than dogs most of the time and still do more than them. I don’t mind doing the work – I like being busy at work. It is just so frustrating how much people take their good health for granted.

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