Sick People Can Be Dicks, Too

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 13.266% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

Being chronically ill is like having a part-time job you hate but can’t quit. It’s a constant suck on your resources that healthy folks don’t understand – overseeing the never-ending battle between your insurance and the pharmacy and the doctor who forgot to call in your fucking scrip again, finding a physician who actually listens when you tell her there’s something wrong, a rocky employment record because on any given day you might collapse.
Dating while being chronically ill? Even harder.
It takes a special kind of partner who’s going to be okay when you’re too sick to go to that fun party, to drive you to the doctor’s office six times a month because the medications make it dangerous for you to take the wheel, to deal with the fact that sometimes you’d like want to do the kinky-kinky but dammit your legs just aren’t up to that today.
So a lot of sick and/or handicapped people are also terribly lonely. You have to find a partner who fits the craggy edge of this life you didn’t choose, and hunting down someone that generous is difficult at best.
If you’re dating someone who is sick like that, and are sticking by their side when the “in sickness” part consistently outweighs the “health,” let me offer you a personal word of thanks: you’re on the side of the angels, here. Your empathy is an inspiration.
Make sure to take care of yourself, too.
See, the reason I say this is because sick people can be jerks, too. It’s not like the doctor comes along and says, “You’ve contracted a case of lupus and also, sainthood.”
Sick people are, well, people. And some folks who get sick were abusers before they got ill.
And in the very rare circumstances when a chronically ill person is an abuser, they can do a lot of damage. The guilt-hammers they can drop are devastating, because yes, they’re dependent, and yes, they’re often needing other people to help them along…
…but most chronically ill people don’t use that as a way to shape your life to their convenience.
I say this because I’ve watched some friends who stayed with someone ill, a person who was actively corroding their self-esteem and taking advantage of them – and yet didn’t feel right about leaving this clearly toxic environment because “S/he needs me.”
So they stayed while their partner cheated on them, and spent their money, and dispensed their affection in carefully-calculated slot-machine doses of “neglect today, insult tomorrow, but maybe a sweet word this weekend.”
But they couldn’t leave, because that would make them a bad person.
So let’s be clear here: There’s no reason to endure constant abuse. Ever. You’re not a bad person for leaving someone who treats you badly. Even very sick people don’t get a “get out of responsibility free” card which enables them to treat you like shit all the time.
…which is not to say that the chronically ill won’t snap at you, from time to time. I think of my Uncle Tommy, a hemophiliac with such terrible arthritis that if you listened to his shoulder you could hear the bones rubbing against each other like stale crackers – and while I loved him dearly, he was not always a ball of fun. He had really angry days. He had surly days. He had withdrawn days.
The difference was, he didn’t justify his angry and surly and withdrawn days by telling me they were my fault. He had them, but never blamed me for them or used them as an excuse to take out his frustrations on a nearby target. He apologized, when he was in a better place – and sometimes when he wasn’t. And even towards the end of his life when he was in constant pain, he still devoted what limited resources he could towards worrying about my well-being, making sure I took care of myself, squeezing my hand to let me know that he loved me.
My Uncle Tommy, in the middle of all that pain, wanted me to be happy.
Sometimes, someone’s just depressed or chronically ill or handicapped, and yes, they need your support. They don’t mean to be a pain in the butt – and they’re doing their best to be functional human beings despite some soft spots.
So you should not be too eager to pull that switch. Sick people need love, too, often much more of it.
Yet some sick people chew up love and spit it out, always expecting more and not caring how they get it. (Or, more accurately, some people do this, and some of those people happen to be sick.) Some segment of the depressed and the chronically ill and the handicapped will callously treat you as though you were a medicine-and-money-and-support-dispensing machine, filleting your self-esteem to do as they please.
And when you hit your limit, they’ll jam hard on the “But what will happen to me if you go?” guilt button.
Yet again: It’s not wrong to leave someone who abuses your kindness. Even caretakers get to set proper boundaries. And if someone keeps violating your trust in ways that hurt you, then they’ve sent you a clear message: I don’t care about you.
In which case – sadly, tragically, and hopefully avoidably – you are not required to care for them. It’s kind if you do, of course. (And slightly different if you’re dealing in terms of end-of-life care, of course, which is brutal but at least has an end date baked into it somewhere.)
Yet if you’re consuming your own mental health in order to take care of someone who doesn’t give a crap about how you feel, then remember that your kindness is a gift. You deserve to give that kindness to someone who genuinely appreciates it on whatever limited level they can.
There’s one person you must be kind to above all others, in the long run – and that’s you.


  1. Maria
    Jul 22, 2014

    I read this as someone with an illness, although I often forget to categorize my depression as a chronic illness. For me, this post was actually a great reminder that even though I have depression, it’s not a constant excuse to be a dick to my loved ones. There’s nothing wrong with people having boundaries and limits, and those limitations might be extended in certain circumstances, but anyone can reach their limit. I sometimes hear that it’s not love unless it’s unconditional, and I strongly disagree with that sentiment.

  2. Beth
    Jul 22, 2014

    I’m also reading this from the perspective of the sick person and I needed to hear it today (even though it did sting a bit). I’m actually just starting to get back to a period of bad mental illness and had been worrying about its effect on my relationship.
    This has reminded me to sit down with my partner and talk about what he needs to feel ok during this period.

    • TheFerrett
      Jul 24, 2014

      See, but that’s why you’re a good partner. Even in the midst of mental illness, you’re checking in.

      • LMFT
        Aug 5, 2014

        Thank you for this. I have tried to say this to a friend for months without success, and you did it beautifully. Do not doubt, your words have made a difference.

    • Pete
      Jul 29, 2014

      Just do the best you can. Of course we are not in you’re shoes and to say I know how you feel is BS. Until I do feel it I have no idea.
      However we do try to understand when you are in a place with no escape and we do want to help. Sometimes we are suffering just because we can’t help. In that case all we can do is share. Hold onto each other. And if possible stop yelling. That hurts too and especially when you have done you’re best.

  3. Anny
    Aug 1, 2014

    Thanks for writing what I sometimes want to say to people, but can’t find the words for.
    Since my partner has Aspergers and I have chonic Lyme, this hits very close to home. But, the reason why we know we’re good for each other, and our relationship is good for *ourselves*, is because no matter how bad we feel, or how angry we are, we always know we are being cared for. I remember one time when we had a fight, and I didn’t want to ask for help to take something upstairs. It was actually too much for me to take on my own, and he got really upset with me because, and I quote: “it doesn’t matter how angry I am, if you need me you tell me!”. He was much more upset that I could have gotten hurt, than whatever we were angry about.
    I still think about it to this know, because it shows just how much he truly cares for me ♥

    • TheFerrett
      Aug 7, 2014

      Sick people can also be totally loving, too. That’s always worth remembering.

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