This is something I’ve actually thought a lot about in the last couple of years, as I’ve been battling a serious illness of my own, and spent a lot of time with other sick people. My personal opinion is that, while everyone should get a little leeway when they’re in pain or sick, some people use it as an excuse to be dicks. Those people were always dicks, but now they get carte blanche to be dicks by people who are afraid to say no to a sick person.
Don’t get me wrong. Severe illness brings out the worst in you. In addition to the actual sickness, it’s stressful, often lonely, often frustrating, and just overall difficult. Every little thing you want to do, you either can’t do, or you need help to do, or it hurts to do. Think of everything you need to do in a day – even in a hospital or staying home and bed – and everything hurts or makes you sick. Anyone would snap eventually. It’s statistically shown to cause depression (heck, my insurance company kept having a nurse call me, and the bulk of those conversations were questions about self-harm and depression – it’s a huge problem!) But at the same time, illness doesn’t take away your empathy for other people, if you have it. After you snap, you apologize. If you are depressed, you need to seek out treatment and be responsible for your behavior.
Being very ill did make me, emotionally, into a very different person. I’m not normally the kind of person who seeks out someone for emotional support all the time. I’m normally stable, mellow, and mature. I handled difficult situations pretty well. I’m low drama. But, when I was really sick, I was a goddamn mess. I cried over the drop of a hat. I cried almost every day, mostly to myself. I was sad sometimes, but mostly I was scared, and I was really, really, really frustrated with the situation. I regret bursting into tears with medical workers and things like that. I needed pep talks and a lot of outside support for the first time, and my mom had to intervene to help me on several occasions when I just became inconsolable.
All that said, I don’t think I ever treated anyone cruelly. I wasn’t rude, that I can remember, and I did an awful lot of apologizing (probably too much) to everyone. Honestly, one of the hardest things was knowing how my illness was affecting other people, and I was terribly afraid of making it worse, because I’d heard stories of other family members becoming terrors when they got sick. I tried very hard to be appreciative and thankful. When I got emotional inappropriately (crying), I’d apologize and try to explain myself. I didn’t tell people just to deal with it because that’s how sick people are.
I stayed in a nursing home for a few months and I didn’t see a strong correlation between illness/pain and rudeness. It seemed like some sick people and some not-so-sick people were really rude and mean all the time, and some sick people and not-so-sick people were mostly fine and pleasant to deal with. The guy who seemed the sickest – a younger guy, incredibly frail, looked like he’d lost a lot of weight, could barely move and seemed badly in pain – he and his wife were so sweet and kind to one another, I found it very inspiring. They were so loving and nice, it actually was very comforting to me to watch every day (the phys therapy rooms usually had lots of patients in at once so you got to see a lot of other people). The surliest woman was just there because she had gotten a knee replacement and none of her family members would take her in for a few weeks. After spending some time with her, I couldn’t blame them.
I got to talking with a lot of the staff at the hospital and the home, and they definitely seemed to notice the same thing. Some people just wanted any kind of attention, including negative attention. They’d page the staff members over and over again and would complain bitterly (and officially) when they were treated like patients rather than god-kings, and when other patients who had more urgent needs were prioritized (e.g. bedridden guy needs to use the toilet is a little more important than staying more than 15 minutes to hear more about how the tea is always cold). These people often intentionally undermined their treatment, too – they wouldn’t participate in therapy, they’d ignore doctor’s orders, they’d just generally be jerks and expect people to take care of them forever. They were only ‘happy’ being unhappy, and making others unhappy. My conclusion was pretty much that some people are just assholes and being sick just magnifies that tendency.
Excluding brain-affecting diseases/injuries and dementia and the like where the person really doesn’t know any better, personal attacks are NEVER okay, and even if they happen in an absolutely awful moment (e.g. you do something accidental that causes extreme, sudden pain) then they should apologize, not make excuses that all sick people are rude. They aren’t. It’s an excuse. Certainly, I think a sick person should get an extra benefit of the doubt for things that happen in the meat of the moment. That said, being sick doesn’t suddenly make you forget that other people have feelings – if anything, it should make you even more acutely aware of them, as you become dependent on others you can’t help but realize the effect you have on their lives.
I think you need to talk to your friend about what is going to be acceptable. If she can’t handle her illness without being that nasty to you, then maybe she needs to find someone else, or hire a caregiver herself.