I’m Sick — Here’s How NOT to Respond.
Friends, listen. I have cancer.
It’s a potentially terminal type, but it looks like I’ll just have to take a couple pills every day for the rest of my life and be a little careful about the choices I make.
I want you to know that this means a lot will change, and you’ll likely see some impact.
Sometimes I’ll need to stay in bed.
Sometimes I won’t have much of an appetite.
Sometimes I may not be healthy enough to go out with you, or have the energy to do the things I want to do.
Sometimes I’ll cancel our plans, because I made them when I felt ok, but then I started to feel a bit sick.
Sometimes I’ll be so focused on taking care of myself that I won’t get back to you for a while, but I promise I’m still a good friend and I still care about you.
Sometimes I’ll pull away, not because of anything you’re doing, but because I don’t want you to see me when I’m feeling so ill, or see the effects of my condition. I want you to see me when I’m fun and feeling well.
Sometimes you’ll see some symptoms here and there, but for the most part, you won’t! I’ll be pretty normal, overall, and living a relatively healthy life, just taking the necessary medication and making sure to take care of myself.
I have a confession to make. I don’t have cancer.
For my friends who have survived cancer or who are fighting it currently, this is not meant to demean your survival or your experience in any way. If anything, I hope you see this as solidarity, because I, like you, know what it’s like to be sick all the time. I know that many of you deal with not only cancer, but also the psychological effects of cancer on yourself and those around you. Like you, I know what it’s like to have a health concern that you think you’ve beaten, but that could come back any time, sometimes worse than before. I know what it’s like to completely change your life in order to be healthy. I know what it’s like to have something that kills tens of thousands of people (about 44,000, according to the CDC’s statistics) in the US every year, and what it’s like to tell those you love.
I have depression.
All the things above are true of me, though.
Now, I want you to think about the way you’d react to a friend diagnosed with cancer versus the way you’d react to a friend diagnosed with depression.
Would you say any of these to me if I had cancer?
- But you don’t look like you have cancer!
- You’re the least cancer-y person I know! How can you have cancer?
- I had cancer once, for a couple months. Here’s what I did to get past it.
- Here are some books about cancer.
- Well, have you been exercising? Exercise helps with cancer, you know.
- What have you been eating?
- Have you been meditating, or doing any spiritual practices?
- Are you going outside enough? You should probably go outside; that would help.
- Just hang on for a while. You can power through this without treatment, I know it.
- You should [insert unsolicited advice here].
- You have cancer because we aren’t hanging out enough! Let’s hang out more.
- You know, I noticed you had an extra glass of wine the other night. You really should lay off if you want your cancer to get better. That doesn’t look like you’re taking it seriously, and other people are noticing.
- But what caused the cancer? Something must have caused it. Cancer doesn’t just happen.
- What kinds of meds are you taking for your cancer? I’ve heard the cancer meds you’re on aren’t good. Have you tried [other drug/treatment]? My friend did that and it worked.
- Honestly, most of the time when people get diagnosed with cancer, they don’t really have it.
- Since I’m being there for you during your cancer, I expect you to be there for me during all my hard times and offer me the same level of support. It’s not fair or a real friendship if you don’t.
- You don’t have a right to draw boundaries for yourself about unhealthy behaviors in anyone else’s life as long as you still have cancer.
- Really sorry, but I had to tell everyone I know about your cancer diagnosis, which I heard about from someone else. Don’t worry, though, I did that to figure out how best to support you.
- Are you planning to stop treating your cancer at some point? You don’t want to be treating it your whole life.
- When will you stop using cancer as an excuse?
- I’m sorry, but I can’t continue this friendship until your cancer symptoms are gone. Best of luck with that!
- You know, your cancer makes you really hard to be around sometimes.
- Your cancer makes me scared of talking to you.
You probably wouldn’t.
You’d probably assume that I had a whole team of qualified doctors who know more than you working with me to get the best possible outcome for my health — and you’d be right.
You’d probably ask things like:
- How can I support you?
- What do you need?
- How are you feeling?
You’d understand if I didn’t show up for things sometimes because I didn’t feel well. You’d have compassion.
All of the situations in the first list above have happened to me (except, of course, regarding depression instead of cancer). Most of these have happened multiple times.
My depression is a medical issue, like any other medical issue, that is a part of my body’s chemistry. I’ve had it since I was a child, but like other health issues, it’s gotten more severe with age. It was at its worst about two years ago, but now that I’m on the right track medically, my health is improving. It takes some medication to make me feel better. And sometimes I feel worse, even though I’m doing everything right- even though I’m doing everything I can to make sure I stay healthy.
I have a team of doctors and professionals supporting me. I have probably tried everything you’d like to suggest for me.
What’s my point here?
Please treat your friends who have mental illnesses the same way you treat friends with more physically-manifesting illnesses. Rally around them to help them fight. Be there for them, whatever that may mean for them (and ask them what “being there” entails for them; don’t assume). Respect their chosen methods of treatment and their medical privacy. Remember that you’re not a doctor. Make it safe to discuss depression around you.
And stop blaming bad behavior you see on the news on mental illness. If a politician says something asinine, if someone inexplicably shoots someone else, if you vehemently disagree with someone on social media — stop diagnosing those people with mental illnesses. Unless you are a doctor — specifically, that person’s doctor — you are not qualified to make that claim. When you do this, you cause problems in a variety of ways.
- You associate bad behavior (and oftentimes excuse it) with mental illness.
- You use mental illness as an insult, which discourages people who need professional help from getting it.
- You minimize the struggles that we actually face.
This is a potentially deadly illness. It’s not just celebrities who are killed by depression. Please start being conscious of the way you talk about these things, the way you respond to them.
It’s time to normalize depression as simply another medical issue.