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Chronic Illness in the Pandemic

Jill Tatge, Tehachapi Mountain Vineyard

The pandemic has affected each and every one of us.  Since hitting the stay-at-home-order anniversary, I have been reflecting on this past year.  Along with the rest of the country, I spent March of 2020 trying to educate myself and be as safe as possible, believing this would all be over within a short amount of time.  As the weeks went by, I started noticing how people in my life were struggling with isolation and loneliness, yet I was handling it well. In no way do I mean to diminish the widespread devastation of this pandemic, but am recalling my own personal experience.

I tried to offer my support to friends and family as best as I could, which meant many video chats, phone calls, emails, and texts.  By May I was conscious of how expansive my social life had become.  I was talking with old friends I normally only correspond with at Christmas, making deeper connections with new friends, taking online classes and webinars, and leading a Bible Study online.  My calendar was filled to the brim and I was loving it!  

Life was good.  I was feeling connected and heard in ways I had never experienced before.  You see, I have chronic illness.  Ever since I was 15 years old, I have dealt with life-altering and sometimes debilitating health issues.  Staying at home in bed for weeks at a time with no contact to the outside world, aside from phone calls with my mom, is just a part of my life.  Up until COVID happened, very few people really understood what it is like to be stuck at home for any length of time.  Then suddenly, we were all stuck.  For the very first time, everyone was in the same boat as me.  We were all at home with nothing to do and nowhere to go, may as well connect with one another!  

As I've talked to others with chronic illnesses, I've heard of similar circumstances.  We all had a pretty good 2020.  Some of us, including myself, would even say we were doing so well we were thriving! I have heard many stories of chronically ill and/or disabled people who have vastly increased their productivity while working from home. Not having to waste precious energy getting ready and traveling to an office or workplace has meant that energy can be put towards the actual work they were hired to do.  Having regular human interaction, conversations with friends old and new, and not having to worry about over-exerting ourselves while being physically active out in public meant we were doing better mentally as well.  

However, now things are starting to open back up again.  People are going back to work and school in person and getting together in real life.  I hear complaints about not wanting to do another stupid video chat.  Texts and emails have stopped being replied to and the phone goes to voicemail because so many are getting back to being too busy doing things in person.  Once again, those of us who don’t have the luxury of health are being left behind.  If you have been fortunate enough to be "getting back to normal" lately, please take the time to think about the people in your life for whom "normal life" means being at home alone. According to nationalhealthcouncil.org, nearly 81 million Americans suffer from multiple chronic illnesses.  The severity and how it affects their daily lives will vary, but that means we all know and love someone who, more than likely, suffers in silence.  

When reading this, it may be easy to feel pity for me or others with chronic illness. Pity doesn't help, it only creates more separation – a group of healthy people over here and a group of people over there whom we feel sorry for because they’re unhealthy. Walking TOGETHER, side by side with our brothers and sisters is what is truly desired, and fosters biblical love and compassion. Being treated as a normal person, but having my limitations respected when I realize I've reached them is my greatest aspiration. Not pity, not making decisions for us, not being forgotten about, but love and understanding.  Loving our neighbors can be easy when we can go out and have fun together.  Yet how can we love our neighbors who don't have that ability?

Here are some simple ideas for how you can show support for our chronically ill and disabled brothers and sisters:

  • Set a reminder in your phone or calendar to reach out regularly.  Do what is right for your relationship, whether that’s once a week, month, or every-other-week. Getting a text on a random Tuesday afternoon will brighten their day!
  • Send them a card.  An actual physical in the mail card.  It can be something silly.  It can be heartfelt.   A cousin and I send obscure holiday cards to each other.  Arbor Day is coming up on April 30th, just sayin!
  • Don't complain about video chats!  These are often a lifeline to us and the only human social interaction we have.  Instead, schedule a monthly date to have one.  It doesn't have to be a 2-hour marathon, a 10 minute check-in is fantastic and can be manageable even on bad health days.
  • Personally, I still love doing the through-the-front-window chats with friends.  Don't forget that some of us are high-risk and still not able to be out in public, but as we learned over the last year, that doesn't stop you from dropping off some food or waving to us through the window.
  • Watch a TV show or movie at the same time and text during the commercials.  As a teenager, way back before streaming and DVRs, I had a friend who would come over each week and we'd watch our favorite TV show together.  It was the highlight of my week.  Adapting that idea to today's technology is a fun way to interact and connect.  
  • Make a note of when they have a doctor’s appointment and ask them how it went.  Respect if they don't want to go into details, but let them talk if they want.  Most appointments are simple and routine, but it is really nice when someone remembers.
  • Share the links to online services, groups, or blogs.  I am thankful for TMV and DV continuing to have online options for services and small groups. Not all churches were able to transition online or have gone back to fully in person only.

As you can see, each time we interact doesn't have to be some epic amount of time or effort.  Text that funny meme you found.  Send a picture of the view you had on your hike.  Forward the recipe you tried last night that was good enough to make again.  Simple exchanges are manageable for both people and can have a huge impact, especially when it’s the only interaction you have that day.  Expressing pity or giving unsolicited medical advice is never the way to go, but having an honest, caring relationship with someone who happens to have chronic illness is a wonderful thing for all involved.  The last year has been challenging, devastating, and impacted our lives negatively.  At the same time, we have learned to come together to support one another in ways we hadn’t realized were possible.  Let us not let go of that sense of community and instead continue to build from it, doing life together.

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