When I was 10, I made my mom buy me a shirt that said “ask me about my Crohn’s Disease” because my Camp Oasis counselor had one and I thought it was just the *coolest.* I really only wore it around the house and it sort of became a joke to the rest of my family. Every time I would come downstairs my dad would “ask me” about my Crohn’s to the point where I taped a piece of paper saying “actually don’t ask” to the front of it to make him be quiet. At the time, it was just a funny t-shirt that I wore to make my family laugh. But thinking back, 10 year old me was on to something important.
So often, we assume things about other people based on what we can see or gossip we’ve heard. We see someone who looks “healthy” and “normal” and assume that nothing could possibly be causing them pain. Or, we hear that someone has a certain condition and assume they are affected by it the same way our aunt, or lab partner, or favorite tv-character is.
But as someone living with an invisible illness, I can tell you that these assumptions often hurt more than my disease itself. They make me feel like people are looking at me through a glass case, as if there is something in the way preventing them from reaching out to me. They assume that if their friend or relative is doing well on a certain medication, I should totally try it to because it will fix all my problems- as if I’m not already trying my best to manage my disease. When I voice my offense, I’m met with the response “Their intentions were good! They just didn’t want to make you uncomfortable!” But in these scenarios, is it really my comfort they’re trying to protect, or is it their own?
Asking people to tell us about their battles is not easy. It feels “wrong,” like the very question is off-limits. But avoiding these types of questions because they feel funny isn’t okay, either, because it leads us to judge people rather than try and support them. And when we assume things about other people, we make them feel small; like their story is invalid if it doesn’t fit with how we picture it in our own heads.
I’m guilty of this. This “thinking we know people based on how they appear and what gossip I’ve heard about them” nonsense. I’m pretty sure we all are. People are so scared of being “uncomfortable” that we sacrifice others’ well-being for our own peace of mind. For so long, we’ve been taught to piece a person’s story together by making assumptions and snap judgments instead of just asking them to tell it themselves. But those assumptions and those judgments? They hurt.
There’s nothing wrong with asking someone how they’re feeling, or how their condition affects them, or how you can help them get through a rough day. Sure, there are polite and impolite ways to do so. Asking someone “what’s wrong with you?!” or is a lot different than asking “how is your ______ impacting you today and how can I help?” or “how is your treatment going?”
When we ask people questions instead of assuming the answers, we let them tell their story the way they want it to be heard. We show them that we value and genuinely want to learn how to support them. Of course, that doesn’t mean we can just ask whatever questions we want and expect an answer every time. If a person isn’t willing or able to respond to you, that’s okay. You did your part- you asked. You showed that you care and want to learn. That’s already 5000 times better than just assuming. Or, if they correct you and explain a more polite way to ask your question, be receptive. Don’t defend your mistake, but rather be willing to learn and improve the way you approach that situation next time. Asking the wrong way and learning from that mistake is better than not asking at all and just taking a guess.
I may not wear an “ask me about my Crohn’s disease shirt” anymore, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to start conversations. If you don’t know what food I can eat, or what I mean when I say I don’t feel well, or how I expect you to react to that statement, ask me! Don’t ask your great uncle who also has Crohn’s and expect me to feel the same way as he does. Don’t google it and get confused when I don’t have the same experience as the robot on WebMD. Just ask me. It’s not rude; if anything, it’s the opposite. Asking people questions is compassionate. It’s thoughtful. It allows us to hear their perspective and put ourselves in their shoes. It may feel weird, but asking is the right thing to do. It’s the kind thing to do. So if you have a question, go ahead and ask. And when you get an answer, listen.