But You Don't Look Sick?

by Don Meyer, Ph.D. | Nov 22, 2008

"Humor is contagious, laughter is infectious. Both are good for your health." 
William Fry, MD

Sickness has a way of bringing out the best and worst in all of us. When we are sick, we want everyone to understand us. We want them to say just the right words and to do just the right things to help reduce our suffering. We want them to "mourn with those who mourn." 

But when others are sick and we are healthy, the tables turn upside down. How easy it is to be too busy to understand. How hard it is to say just the right words and do just the right things to reduce their suffering. How hard it is to "mourn with those who mourn." 

One of the most extreme examples of saying the wrong thing to a sick person occurred when my father was gravely ill. Shortly before his death a relative said that perhaps he was in that condition because his faith was weak or he had sin in his life. I still remember his deep pain as he shared with his wife (my mother) that he had no idea what this relative was talking about. 

A friend of mine with a terminal illness told me about a website that captures some of the unwise remarks people share around those with chronic diseases, i.e. The purpose of the site is "about living life to the fullest with any disability, invisible disease, or chronic pain and hopes to provide answers to the endless question of "But you don't look sick?" 

At first I wasn't sure how I should interpret what these people meant. Their interviews, personal essays, poetry, medical information, message board, and even the column on "Sick Humor" were there to help the healthy understand the sick. 

Here are a few of the top ten worst suggestions given to someone with a chronic illness: 

  • Have you tried holistic options? (Many. I'll bring it back up to my doctor in my next visit, thanks.)
  • Could it be your stress? (My opinion is, it is my illness. I'll bring it up with my doctor though, thanks.)
  • Have you thought about being in a trial study? (I'll ask my doctor, thanks.)
  • Wow! If I were you, I don't know what I'd do. I might just kill myself. (Thanks.)
  • Have you Googled your illness? (, thanks.)
As I read this list I tried to remember if I had ever said anything like that when I've been around those who are genuinely suffering from extended illnesses. The site also lists some "Sick Humor" to use when someone says to you, "But you don't look sick?"
  • But I tried so hard.
  • Maybe it's Maybelline.
  • Are you flirting with me?
  • It's really good to know that the four hours it took me to get out of bed, and get ready this morning wasn't wasted.
One of the most helpful insights into the world of chronic illness on this site comes from an essay by Christine Miseradino titled "The Spoon Theory." In an attempt to explain her world of Lupus to her best friend, she came up with "The Spoon Theory." 

"Most people start their day with unlimited possibilities, and energy to do whatever they desire, especially young people." To illustrate this, she took a handful of spoons, one representing each activity through the day. The healthy person may use one spoon to get up while the sick person may need 10. For the sick person, a day may be only half over when all of one's spoons are gone. Sometimes you may even try to borrow tomorrow's spoons. 

Next time I visit someone who is chronically ill I will try to think more about spoons than something profound I should say. 

Think about it.
Dr. Don Meyer is President of 
Valley Forge Christian College, Phoenixville, PA 
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