It’s hard to live in a body that seems broken. It’s even harder to have your dignity taken away because of it. If you are wondering what I am rambling about, I am happy you have never experienced this kind of shame and frustration; however, people with chronic illness, pain and disabilities grapple with it constantly. Our society makes it difficult for many of these people to move within the world, but it is often social barriers that make the most impact on them. Unless you have dealt with health issues in some way, it’s hard to know how to treat people who live with chronic disabilities. Although it is sometimes difficult, it is important for everyone to show people with health issues genuine respect, understanding and support in order to make them feel more included in the world.
I empathize with people who deal with chronic health issues because I am one of them. For the past seven years, I have experienced chronic vertigo and debilitating vestibular migraines. My journey has been a long one, and it often feels scary, chaotic and disheartening. Originally, I couldn’t walk due to my symptoms. I couldn’t go to school or socialize. My existence shrunk to a mind trapped in pain, ostracized from the world and people around me. Eventually, my brain adapted to the constant stimulation, and I learned how to move in a world that was not built for me.
There are so many aspects of our society and civilization that people without illness, pain or disabilities take for granted. In my experience, it’s the way the straight lines on highway sound barriers flash by at even intervals. It’s the checkered tiles that mark the floor of the grocery store. It’s the LED lights that seem to inhabit every building in America. It’s these, and so many other things, that trigger my symptoms and make me want to scream in frustration.
However, it’s the people who pretend not to see me clutching my head and shaking that make me want to explode with anger. There have been so many times that people have seen me in pain and walked by. Then there are other times where people see me and give me unsolicited advice about my condition without even asking me a question about it first.
It is often difficult to deal with people who are suffering because all people act differently when they are in pain. However, all people deserve respect, and nothing should ever take away from that.
If you are ever in a situation with someone who is in pain, ask them about it. It’s a small action to take, but it makes a big difference. Whether you know the person or not, quietly ask them if they are hurting. I recommend asking in a way that doesn’t bring the attention of everybody in the nearby area.
Approach the person quietly, but in their line of sight so you do not surprise them. If they are in your inner circle, or when this pandemic is over, touch them lightly on their shoulder. This might distract them from their pain a bit, or it might make it worse, but touch has a wonderful way of displaying empathy. Listen to what they would like you to do. If it is a chronic issue, they probably know exactly what they need. Respect them enough to grant them whatever they need, whether that is space, help or nothing at all. The best thing you can do is to show them your support, but make it obvious that they are in charge.
The last thing you should do is make them feel incapable. No one wants to feel helpless, and it is so easy to feel that way when people are not listening to you. People with chronic health issues are stronger than you could ever imagine, even though they might not have the same physical capabilities as you. Make it obvious that you are there for them when they want you, but that you’ll be your normal self until then.
Do not let someone’s chronic issues change the way you treat them unless they specifically want it to be like that. People with disabilities want to form connections with other people on an even ground. It is your job to put away any uncomfortable feelings you might have and treat them like what they are: a person.