Break the Link Between Chronic Illness and Loneliness

Posted by on Oct 25, 2014 in Chronic pain | 0 comments

The symptoms of chronic illnesses are extensive and varied: pain for some, numbness for others; exhaustion or unrelenting restlessness; bellyache, headache, muscle ache; shortness of breath, thundering heartbeat, dizziness.

There is one symptom that almost everyone struggling with a chronic illness shares: loneliness.

It may feel like an intentional piling on of unhappiness: Not only do you have the misfortune of developing a chronic illness but just when you need them most, the people you count on disappear from your life. There are a lot of reasons why this happens:

  • We’re all accustomed to short-term, intense illnesses like the flu. People who have it generally just want to be left alone to sleep and get better. When the illness doesn’t go away, your friends may not know how to respond.
  • The people who care about you want to do something meaningful, but can’t imagine how to make it better. Chicken soup isn’t very effective against cancer.
  • It’s painful to see someone we care about suffering when there’s no good outcome in sight.
  • The activities that drew you and your friends together in the past – hiking, dancing, travel, even eating out or going to a movie – may no longer be possible.
  • You have entered a foreign land that the people from your previous life don’t inhabit. Your interests are different now and a gulf stretches between you. Friends from work still care deeply about the new soda machine; you have other interests.
  • Whatever your relationship was before, it’s inevitably unbalanced now. Your friend has the power to do, to come or go, to take charge. To some degree, you no longer have that power.
  • Your illness has its own agenda and even when you are able to make plans with a friend, you may have to cancel at the last minute, over and over.
  • It can be frankly, selfishly, tiresome for your friends to spend time with you when you aren’t up to being fun and can’t reciprocate as you used to.

Not fair, not fair, but understandable that you can’t count on your old support network. You probably have a few friends or family members who will hang in, and bless them, but you’re likely to find yourself with lots of empty hours to contemplate your new reality. It’s important that you summon the energy and courage to make that change. A recent survey from the Ohio State University College of Medicine revealed that loneliness can disrupt your immune system, produce inflammation, and give viruses an opportunity to flare.

Some of the steps that may help:

  • Join social networks on the Internet. If chatting by text doesn’t fill the void in your life, move on to Skyping or phone conversations. Or, go old school and exchange letters and photos with new friends.
  • Find a support group where you can chat with the people who will understand best what you’re dealing with.
  • Write a blog about your experiences and feelings. Feel free to write honestly; you can limit readers to those who will understand.
  • Don’t be shy to ask friends for what you need; chances are at least some of them are just waiting for a clue about how to be helpful.
  • Set limits. Your friends may feel overwhelmed by what they imagine you want from them. Ask for a half-hour visit once a week and they may be much more willing to make that limited commitment.
  • Explain to your friends how important they are to you. They may feel that you’re worn out by medical appointments and visits from other friends.
  • If you’re physically able, consider a pet. There’s nothing like the unconditional affection from a small friend to pick you up when you feel alone with your illness.

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