The dictionary defines the word “relationship” as “The way in which two or more people or things are connected, or the state of being connected.”
I, like many people in their mid-20s, have had a few groups of close friends, and some that naturally grew apart. My relationship with my friends began after starting university, and has developed during the years since.
This “close” friendship group had supported each other and developed or changed to include some of us traveling, some moving away, and even a couple of kids. We were friends first on common ground — we liked the same music, same dingy clubs and pubs, shared views on most things, and for those we didn’t, we enjoyed hearing the other’s opinion. In others words we were able to relate to each other — pretty witty, yes?
In addition, I am the kind of person that would do everything in my power to make others happy. I am naturally a people-pleaser. In the past I’d happily go along with or often facilitate or organize a large chunk of the social events within my circle.
The last couple of years have been hugely difficult for me personally. My journey to diagnosis and trialling treatments has been a rocky one. My chronic illnesses for has made the cracks in our foundation evident in a way that not even arguing over pizza toppings could. I have grown apart from a couple of my previously closest friends. Other members I have grown closer to, but in a “we avoid talking about your problems” kind of way. I have also found solace and formed new and sometimes distant friendships with those living with health issues of many kinds, in other words people I can relate to in my “now.”
Those I have grown apart from, the “closer ones” I could blame on my inability to socialize as often or reliably as I once could. Or I could blame my comparatively quiet days and the result being I miss out on events such as festivals or nights out.
But it’s all that and more.
Chronic illness has taken over every aspect of my life. It has slowly but surely impacted my very being. There are the more obvious such as not being “fit to work” at present, meaning I’m reliant on my partner and family. I don’t have the income to join in costly events of my working friends. I cannot always leave the house without significant distress or difficulty, which makes socializing more complicated. The unpredictable nature of my illnesses mean I am not always able to commit to or honor plans with my loved ones.
And if I’m being totally honest, I sometimes just don’t feel like it. Sometimes my overwhelming fatigue and pain make the idea of leaving the house about as attractive as a dental appointment. Sometimes I just want to sit and read or try to relieve some of my symptoms with stronger painkillers and a hot bath or blanket fort.
The reason the above is important is because unless you have experienced a long-term illness or condition, it makes it hard to comprehend or sympathize with on a long-term basis. It is something solitary in my group of healthy friends. Sometimes my pre-emptive decline of offers which are beyond my realms of reality at the moment have caused bad feelings — more so than those I have broken my commitment to at a later date. Some conversations have resulted in arguments as my friends find it hard to relate to my situation. They now find it hard to relate to me. They have admitted suspecting I am using my conditions as an excuse to not want to partake in something or as a reason to see them. In other words the lack of ability to relate to my situation seems like a personal thing for them. They may feel tired, stressed or a bit off, yet they are still always able to make plans, so why can’t I make the effort?
Because “I can’t” is a viewed as wobbly “excuse” from the outside looking in.
Maybe on occasion I would have agreed with them if I was sitting on the outside.
Living with chronic illness and maintaining relationships can be a minefield. And in my experience I have spent a long time dodging ammo, desperate to explain or defend myself, and make others view me in a positive light. It’s exhausting, and unfortunately on the whole not that effective. The change in me has made it harder for others to relate to me. I wholeheartedly feel this is the root of the issue. And this is the one thing I cannot change. My life, body and mind have changed. Some changes obviously are for the worse, but others maybe for the better. I have learned more in the past few years than I ever thought possible, learned to respect my own needs and others’, and also developed an understanding of the fluid nature of life. Yes I’m down at the moment, but the small “ups” such as enjoying a coffee out the house now seem so much sweeter. My world may be tons smaller, but it’s also more real for me.
Please try to remember if you are in love, friends with or a colleague of a some living with chronic illness, you may feel the impact of their illness acutely. You could feel disappointed, frustrated, angry even, but believe me when I say the one living with the illness feels this chronically. Probably every day.
I ask if you cannot relate to it, just to let it be. Please don’t add to the burden of guilt and sadness by poking and pulling at the person in question. For me personally it’s taken a huge chunk of time and tears to realize that although I would never have chosen the decline, that actually it’s OK. If we cannot relate or empathize then maybe the relationship may also need to take a break or step sideways. It doesn’t mean the love isn’t there. And if you are part of a relationship that has endured the challenges of chronic health issues, I have nothing but respect and admiration for that.
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Thinkstock photo by Thomas_Zsebok_Images