Sunday, October 12, 2014

How to Help A Friend or Loved One with Dysautonomia (Or Any Chronic Illness)

One of my goals while being on leave was to post more regularly but I hit a really bad patch the last few weeks and didn’t get this post up sooner. But I’m working on getting back to the upswing and writing, walking a bit, and singing to my cats regularly again. My BFF Carrie Anne recommended this topic to me, and I thank her for it. This post is in honor and in celebration of Dysautonomia Awareness Month. 

Although Dysautonomia is an invisible illness, living with the condition has very real ramifications in the lives of patients and their friends and loved ones. The illness can be so devastating that some are unable to do normal activities and have to rely on a caregiver. Everyone needs support in their lives, but for those who are disabled and/or chronically ill, that support becomes vital. 

For many people, it is difficult to ask for help. In American culture, we are taught to value independence and self-reliance. I have found that many who cope with chronic illness once had lives filled with ambition, over-achievement, and self-determination, myself included. When suddenly you are confronted with a life of dependence and survival, there is grief and frustration, which can be difficult to communicate to others. Yet, having a support network that you can trust and rely on can make all the difference for Dysautonomia patients.

Many may think that helping a friend with chronic illness or disability means helping them perform tasks. What your friend or loved one really needs is often intangible. I decided to ask some of the online Dysautonomia/POTS groups I am on about this topic to get their feedback and almost everyone responded with the intangible forms of support. Whether you are a caregiver, a loved one, or a friend of someone with Dysautonomia, I hope you find this useful:

Almost every person who responded to my question included this word. Understanding takes many forms, and I believe for many of those who responded it meant trust—trust that even though the illness is invisible, the disabling symptoms are very real. Your friend/loved one is likely dealing with constant dizziness, fatigue, brain fog, nausea, difficulty standing, difficulty breathing, GI symptoms, fainting, weakness, and obstacles performing simple tasks like cooking, driving, showering, or bending over. Their system is on a constant roller coaster ride of fluctuating blood pressure and heart rate because their body is no longer able to self-regulate automatic functions. Even if you cannot visibly see these symptoms, trust that they are experiencing them. They are dealing with constant frustration because of these symptoms and just want someone to understand how challenging life has become.

Many patients deal with constant invalidation, particularly from the medical community. Almost every Dysautonomia patient has at some point heard “it’s all in your head” or “it’s stress.” If a loved one or friend says these words, that invalidation becomes more devastating and emotionally damaging. Imagine dealing with life-altering or even life-threatening symptoms but constantly being dismissed as just “crazy” or “attention-seeking.” The emotional cost of this is unimaginable and it adds to the magnitude of stress illness already causes.

This condition is complicated and rarely diagnosed, so many Dysautonomia patients have to fight hard to “prove” their illness constantly. It can take many years before a patient receives a complete diagnosis. When a loved one or friend just says the words “I believe you,” all of that stress and invalidation washes away. He or she can now be completely honest and authentic with you. It is a true gift. You can even research Dysautonomia, their subset of Dysautonomia, and even their other conditions to gain a better understanding of the symptoms, prognosis, and treatment.
Many who responded also mentioned this word. I would list this as my number one desired form of support. Your friend/loved one’s life has been completely altered by this condition. They are often grieving their former life and trying to figure out how to continue to live a full or half-full life while ill and disabled. This means they are unable to do what they once could. This could be true in terms of work, social life, hobbies, family obligations, household chores, etc. This illness can alter every aspect of a person’s life. They need your patience because their capacity to do these things has diminished. They may miss family functions or have to get accommodations at work, and they need your patience and understanding that they would rather be fully present in all aspects of life. They are courageously living life and putting on a brave face.

For me, once I became ill I realized how much I had taken for granted in life in terms of what I was able to do. Going to the store wasn’t a massive undertaking. Trying to clean my house didn’t take all day because of constantly having to rest. I didn’t live most of my life on the couch or in bed. Whatever the severity of the illness your friend or loved experiences, they can no longer take participation in life for granted and they need your patience as they try to still participate despite the physical obstacles. Your friend or loved one can be relatively symptom free for an hour or a day and then suddenly bed-ridden. There is often no rhyme or reason, so they need your patience as they navigate the ups and downs of the illness.

Communication is essential in any relationship, but it takes on new meaning when your friend or loved one is ill. Last week was one of the worst weeks I’ve ever had and by Friday I needed to go the hospital because I was having difficulty breathing and was unable to walk just a few feet. My husband and I discussed whether it was really worth it to go to the ER or not. We weighed the options together and ultimately decided it was not. These types of communications are typical for caregivers and Dysautonomia patients. Sometimes you are faced with very difficult choices because the cost of this illness is paid out financially, emotionally, and physically. Being able to communicate with each other about these choices and the daily struggles of life can make them more manageable because you can tackle them as a team.

National Public Radio recently did a study on stress and the sources of stress, and they found that the highest forms of stress are related to health. What this data doesn’t state is that chronic illness and poor health can be stressful for all parties involved, not just the patient. Caregivers in particular deal with a lot of pressure and stress. I am no professional, but it may be self-evident that communicating with each other about the challenges of dealing with illness could help alleviate this stress.

There’s an undercurrent of guilt when illness takes over your life because how much it can affect others. I often feel the need to apologize to everyone all of the time. If patients and their loved ones can communicate about their challenges, perhaps the emotional and mental strain of illness can be assuaged for all parties. Dysautonomia patients can communicate their limitations and capabilities in terms of housework or what they will need at a social function so that others can help them. Suffering in silence is not a solution. Listen to your loved one to understand what their needs are and this could limit the frustration that often comes with an invisible illness.
Support comes in many forms, and your friend or loved one needs your support. Because some patients are home-bound or are very limited in their activities, they may not get to see friends or family very often anymore. Stopping by their house or calling, emailing, texting to just ask “how are you doing?” or say something funny can really brighten their day.

This illness can be isolating. Many patients never meet anyone else in person who has the same condition and leaving the house is challenging and exhausting. Feeling alone and misunderstood is common. You can check in once in awhile with your loved one or friend to see how they are doing to show them that you support them and think of them. Everyone needs to know they have a cadre of people cheering in their corner, and this is especially true for those with chronic illness.
      Saying the right thing
I think many people are worried about saying the right thing to someone with a devastating illness, but I don’t think “the right thing” exists. I think there’s only honesty. Tell your friend or loved one that you miss them, you think of them, you hope their treatment is going well. That you wish them an endless supply of chocolate and puppy kisses. Tell them you don’t understand their condition or why it has altered their life. I only know the wrong thing to say is “I don’t believe you,” but beyond that just be honest, ask questions, and listen. Your friend or loved one probably doesn’t want more from you than that.

Caregiving and support is a two-way street. For Dysautonomia patients, I think we could read these suggestions as “how to help friends or family understand our challenges” as well. We also need to understand, be patient, communicate, be supportive, and forget about saying the right thing. If medical professionals are struggling to crack this strange condition, we can’t expect family, friends, or strangers to fully grasp it either. We’ll get through this together.

I hope I covered most of how to help your friend or loved one with Dysautonomia but feel free to suggest more

For more information on Dysautonomia, visit the Useful Links page on this blog



  1. Replies
    1. So glad you found it useful. It's challenging to try to universalize my own experience but I hope others can make use of it.

  2. Thank you, very well written. You seemed to cover all the bases.

  3. Replies
    1. Thank you Rachel. I'm definitely trying to be diplomatic but not sugar coat the challenges we face :)

  4. My daughter has POTS and I've been looking for the right article to share on FB for Dysautonomia Awareness month. I think this is it.

  5. I was diagnosed 8 years ago and it took FOREVER to get a life was all but destroyed...I lost my job my marriage my home and many of my friends...I am improved but life is still a daily struggle that many don't understand and I feel many don't want to understand. I have been labeled "crazy" "lazy" "attention seeking" "drug seeking" et. al...

    1. It is devastating how much we lose. I'm so sorry to hear the cost has been so heavy for you. You have definitely seen rock bottom. I hope things continue to improve for you

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