Chronic pain or illness is extremely difficult for an individual, but we often overlook the impact it has on the people closest to us. It can be painful to see someone you love suffering so much, and to know that you are unable to do anything to help them. Most people react in one of two ways; they become either overly solicitous or punitive.
Especially at the beginning of your journey with a chronic condition, your loved ones may act as your caretaker. They constantly ask you how you are feeling, take on the responsibilities around the household that you used to hold, and “fluff” your pillow at every opportunity. There is a strong emphasis on your illness or pain, and a neglect of the positive parts of your life. If you withdraw, whether from pain or depression, they may feel punished by you and be uncertain how to respond.
On the other end of the spectrum are punitive responses. These responses are not necessarily intended to hurt you. It is difficult to know how to react, especially with a chronic condition. However, it can make a bad situation worse. Loved ones may resent the changes your condition has brought to their lives, especially financial. They may see you neglecting certain responsibilities you used to ignore, and question the honesty of your complaints. My mom, without really meaning to be hurtful, often makes comments to me about how much of a strain I have put on them financially. It is hard, because I know she genuinely cares and doesn’t really resent me for it, but I also know it is tough and there are changes that have had to be made in all of our lives because of my pain.
Ideally, your loved ones will learn to act in a neutral manner. They will not ask you how you feel, or how your pain is, because they will have learned that when you think about your pain, it is worse. Instead, they will offer diversions and distractions to help keep you occupied. If they notice that you are struggling, they can help by asking you what your pain management strategies are, rather than coddling you or getting angry.
Hopefully, everyone around you will learn to react in a neutral manner. It is difficult, though, because most people’s instinct is to begin with caretaking. Unintentionally, they can make it more difficult for you to cope with your pain. Personally, if someone has a habit of acting either way, I try to take them aside and explain to them what would be most helpful for me. Most of the time, people act the way they do because they want to help you in any way they can, and are happy to hear suggestions.