I’ve been having a debate on Facebook with someone about giving out unsolicited medical advice to people dealing with chronic illnesses. This person says that sick people should be grateful for it because it’s a sign that people care about you.
I disagree. Strongly. I didn’t say most of this to her because, well, it was someone else’s Facebook post, and I wanted to limit how badly I hijacked it. But here’s what I want to say.
I understand it’s hard for you to watch someone you care about suffering, and I understand that you want to make it all better. That’s a natural human instinct that arises from empathy. I’ve been on both sides of this, and I know it’s hard on everybody.
But leave medical advice to medical professionals. Medicine is complex. There’s a reason doctors spend years in school and more years being supervised by experienced doctors. If you know someone with a chronic illness, they probably have a doctor already. Lots of us even have lots of doctors. They probably know what they’re doing, since they actually went to medical school. They’re probably doing everything they can to help us manage our health. Giving us medical advice assumes that you know better than our doctors.
Giving us medical advice assumes that we’re not already doing everything we can to manage our health. You probably don’t know what lifestyle changes we’ve made or what medications we’re taking or what our latest lab work looks like. The miracle diet that cured your best friend’s aunt might contain foods that trigger my illness. I might not have the physical stamina to adhere to your exercise regimen. Giving us medical advice assumes you know our bodies better than we do.
And often, if we don’t follow your expert medical advice, we’re sent down Guilt Trip Avenue. I know you probably don’t mean for that to happen, but you should know that it almost inevitably does happen. If we don’t follow your advice, you often imply–or say outright–that we’re just not trying hard enough. You tell us we have a bad attitude, and if we’d just think positively and give it a chance, we’d feel better. When you’re living with a chronic illness, feeling better is not a matter of willpower or effort. Positive thinking has its place, but we also need to be allowed and even encouraged to express emotions like frustration, fear, hopelessness, and anger.
We don’t owe it to you to be grateful for your unsolicited advice. We shouldn’t have to adjust to dealing with advice we don’t want, to forcing a smile and a thank you to make you feel better for “helping” us. Having a chronic illness forces us to adjust almost every aspect of our lives. I think it’s reasonable to ask the people who care about us to adjust how they relate to us a little too.
There are many other ways to let us know you care. Ask us how we’re doing and just listen without trying to fix us. Bring us a doughnut or a book you think we’ll like or some flowers. Send us a card to let us know you’re thinking of us. Ask if there are practical things you can help with, like rides or housecleaning. Take us to see a funny movie. I’m sure you can think of other ways to show you care.
If I see you dealing with an illness in a way that inspires me, I might ask you for pointers. In that case, advise away! Aside from that, if you are not my doctor, please don’t tell me how to manage my illness. Instead, support me as I manage it.