I've been dealing with a moderate flare lately, so I am able to walk, just not very quickly all of the time, and I am able to continue going to school and participating but I often find myself in pain. Many of my friends and teachers have asked what they can do to help. In the moment, these requests feel overwhelming to me, although I know their good-hearted intentions. It is difficult not to feel dependent, or helpless, and much of the time even if I know something that would be helpful I am reluctant to ask for it.
It seems that the best approach for dealing with these types of situations is preparing people ahead of time for what to do when someone is flaring. Many of these suggestions are derived from my own experience, but I threw in a couple that I know some of my friends with chronic illnesses place more emphasis on than I do. My list is not comprehensive. There are many more things that help, and I do not intend to create an encyclopedia of them.
So, without further ado, here are suggestions for how to help:
1. Slow Down
As someone who experiences rather frequent pain in my knees and hips, I often feel like the whole world is moving in fast-forward around me and I am stuck in slow motion. People pass by, and I want to keep up with them, but I know I can't. People stare, because I look pretty strange walking at 2 miles an hour to my next class, and it is very intimidating. Slowing down can be helpful to a person experiencing a flare because it combats some of the isolation. Most of the time, I end up laughing at how awkward my companion looks trying to walk as slowly as I am. Laughter is a good thing.
2. Don't Push the Jokes
While laughter is lovely, sometimes it is just not appropriate. Sometimes I feel like joking about my condition and about the world, and sometimes I feel like telling jokes is a dismissive way of approaching pain. I often have trouble understanding humor when I am in a lot of discomfort, which just ends up being super awkward and making me feel like a terrible person. However, jokes can also be my saving grace. Generally, I think it's best to ask before trying to work humor into your conversation with a flaring person.
3. You're Hot, Then You're Cold
Many people living with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions constantly switch back and forth between heating pads and ice packs, or similar temperature control items. These products are lifesavers, especially in the short-term. Often, heating up a product that provides heat relief or finding ice/a freezer is a pretty daunting task. At my school, ice is in the basement, so I often need it but then decide that all of the walking it would take to go get it simply is not worth it. Being aware of the availability of hot/cold products and helping a friend keep one accessible at all times is incredibly helpful.
4. Hugs and Other Mushy Things
Sometimes, you just can't help with the pain. It is difficult to acknowledge, and I find it challenging to accept that there is sometimes nothing I can do when I see other people in pain. However, even simple things like a hug or a kind note can mean a lot. If you're going to touch someone, I would ask first, but most of the time these gestures will be welcomed. Feeling physically and mentally isolated can be an uncomfortable experience, and often simple acknowledgments of suffering help.
5. Creative Company
I am not one to miss school much, but many of my friends are forced to stay home from work and school rather frequently due to their health. The idea of "creative company" involves meeting someone who is sick where they are. Maybe it means watching Netflix on the couch, or maybe it means baking something simple. Maybe it is just doing your homework from across the room and drinking tea. Staying home is awful, because it is lonely and it is easy to feel like everyone is just waiting for you to get better. Hanging out with someone who is not feeling well lets them know that they are loved even when they are at their most broken. As I shared in my previous post, I think this is a beautiful thing, and it applies to everyone dealing with an illness, whether or not that illness is chronic.
To add to this, I want to emphasize that you can definitely still include your friends with chronic illness in outings that you're going on. Trips to coffee shops, the movies, and the library are usually very doable during flares, depending on fatigue levels. Even if someone is too fatigued to participate, the invitation conveys that you care about them and have not forgotten about them, and that is important in and of itself.
6. Force Your Help
Do not ask how you can help, just help. Or do both. I know that is much easier said than done, but actions are a lot more valuable than empty words.
7. Be Genuine
If you don't know what to say, that's okay. I still find myself at a loss for words sometimes when people tell me about their autoimmune conditions, and I've been living with one for five years (so much for becoming wiser). It is totally okay to say, "I don't know what to say" or "I don't know how to help." You are not supposed to know how to do everything all the time, but I think authenticity is essential. A lot of people try to say the most eloquent things or share deep insights, but sometimes this comes across as forced and even a little condescending. I think honesty is the best policy in these situations. As someone with a chronic illness, I don't expect people to turn into Aristotle or Socrates just because I'm in a flare. So ask questions, be a little reckless, see what happens, and learn for next time. That's all anyone can do.