Relationships and Chronic Illness
Before my ex-husband and I married, I momentarily considered whether two sick people together was a really bad idea. I asked myself: “Do two wrongs make a right?”
Well, technically, no they don’t. On the other hand, being the sick one in a relationship with someone who is well and cannot relate to you is torture. Similarly, being well and dating someone who is sick must be pretty gruelling. After all, who wants to listen to someone complaining about their health? Don’t we want to feel inspired and invigorated in a relationship, rather than brought down and dismal? The truth is, as we get older, illness is a reality. It is almost inevitable that one or the other’s health will eventually decline.
So, how could we cope with each other’s misfortunes without losing the bond that brought us together? This is where empathy comes into play. Empathy, I discovered throughout my life, can be a rare skill to possess. I wonder whether empathy could be the ultimate test of enlightenment. I bet Buddha was an early proponent of empathy.
So what exactly is empathy?
The Oxford English Dictionary says empathy is:
“The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”
Receiving empathy, for someone with a chronic illness, can be like trying to get blood out of a stone. In part, this may be because chronic illnesses can frequently be invisible and, meanwhile, people judge a “book by its cover” – and person by their appearance. One’s friends might not consider that sick people are rarely seen on their bad days. We hide away for long periods – not because we’re bad friends but because we may be suffering and don’t want to be seen that way, or know how to express it.
You cannot see a bacterial infection such as Lyme Disease, and its many co-infections. So, when you decide that someone does not deserve your concern because they look OK, think again.
I learned about empathy through my own health problems. Now, I’m genuinely interested in listening to people who are sick, and I understand how they feel. So, why is it so hard for many people to lend their ear? Maybe they’ve never been sick before? Or, for whatever reason, they feel that they’re having a harder time than you are?
There may even be competition for empathy. Such is the nature of this evasive life skill. Comparing people’s situations is childish. Without walking in another person’s shoes, how can you judge how that person is feeling?
As a person with chronic illnesses, I had to ‘fake it’ every day. I gained strength from other people’s stories on forums. When you think you have it bad, you always see someone who has it equally as tough, or tougher.
Perhaps empathy is the cornerstone of humanity, but it can be a thankless task that can be taken for granted.
For those who give empathy, I salute you! For those who need empathy, cherish it! Hold it dear – it is a ruby in a mountain of rocks.
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