The Difference 5 Years of Illness Can Make on Friendships
When I was 16, I had a birthday party. All my family was there, all my cousins, aunties and uncles that I hadn’t seen in ages. All my friends were there (bar a few that couldn’t make it through work, illness or other commitments) and everyone came together to party. There were no worries about this party.
This month I turned 21 and I had a birthday party. But this time only one group of my family turned up — my auntie on my mum’s side and my four cousins. The rest said they were coming, but never showed. Mum invited loads of her friends and almost all turned up. All my friends were invited, pretty much the same guest list as my 16th party… but this time, six friends turned up. That was all. I had invited over 100 people… and six turned up. I had my boyfriend, one of my best friends, two close friends and two friends I haven’t spoken to in years but are still good friends.
Not quite the turnout I expected. None of the people I went to school with and I still call my best friends were there. None of the friends I’ve made since leaving school and sixth form. None of the friends I used to hang out with in summer down the park. No previous work friends. Just six friends. Six friends I am so grateful for and happy they turned up, more than they will ever realize.
Don’t get me wrong, all the people that Mum invited were my friends, too, and some of them were practically family. I really appreciated them being there. But it was a kick in the guts when none of the people I was missing so much and was so excited to see again bothered to turn up. Especially when they said they’d be there. I understand some had genuine reasons, they had work, they were ill, they had other commitments, but they let me know and I understood. But others didn’t turn up for other reasons.
Here’s the thing. In those five years since my 16th birthday party, I got diagnosed with two chronic illnesses — fibromyalgia and eosinophilic esophagitis. I’ve also been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome, anxiety and depression in that time and am currently battling them all. In those five years, I got kicked out of sixth form for “not being ill enough to warrant this amount of time off” as I was fighting for a diagnosis and struggling to get through the days. I’ve had four jobs and had to leave each and every one because of my conditions. I also lost most of my friends.
During all this time, my friends have been going to uni, learning to drive, moving out and generally moving on with their lives how they should be. How I should have been, too. I should have been by there side doing exactly the same things, yet out of those things, I’ve only accomplished the driving one.
Don’t get me wrong, I am proud of that and driving has made my life so much easier in terms of being able to go out and pretend to be normal. But I had kind of planned to do a whole lot more by my 21st birthday. I’d had this whole idea of how my life was going to be and although I didn’t have a specific plan of what career I wanted or what car or what uni degree I was going to do, I knew I wanted to do it. I wanted to move out and start ticking off those boxes. Those basic “I am an adult” boxes. I was so eager to become an adult and start living my life that I didn’t notice at first my life crashing me.
But the fatigue got worse, the pain got worse, the brain fog got worse. I stopped going out as much and slowly fell behind. All my friends were going out drinking on the weekends and I couldn’t go. If I did go, I was on orange juice and to them that became boring. I couldn’t stay out all night as I was too tired and in too much pain, and that became boring. I couldn’t dress up every weekend in platform heels and a skimpy dress as the heels hurt too much after too long and I would have to take them off or face not being able to walk from the pain in my legs. I couldn’t dress up in the fancy clothes as the hurt my body after a while, no matter how soft the material, and it made my skin itch and feel bruised where it touched me. I couldn’t go out all dressed up with only a clutch bag, as I had to bring my medication with me at all times “just in case” as my conditions were too unpredictable.
I feel like I became a burden to them on a night out, although I was the “designated driver” of the night. I couldn’t dance all evening like they could and had to go sit down after a while because of the blinding pain or I wouldn’t be able to drive later. That meant I had to be “checked on” every now and again between tracks and as caring as they were, I knew they didn’t want to have to deal with that. I couldn’t play the drinking games like they could and down the shots or try new alcoholic mixes and that became boring. Who wants to play a drinking game when one player can’t drink? Who wants to go out dancing with someone who has to sit down after too long and bring a massive handbag full of medication, spare shoes and clothes “just in case?”
So soon I began to stop being invited out as much, or only to “casual meetups” where we only went out for coffee or went for one or two drinks before having a quiet night in. But I knew they were all still going out. I’d see all the Snapchats and the Instagram photos of the many nights out and that’s all they’d talk about when I saw them and the “You should have been there!” comments despite not ever being invited to go out with them anymore. I lost contact with so many people, purely because I was never invited out anymore and I never got to see them. They stopped telling me when they’d be back from uni and stop telling me when they were free to meet. They got fed up of me canceling last minute do because I was too ill or having to leave early because of it. So they moved on without me.
I’m not angry at them… well, maybe a little bit. I’m angry that I can’t do any of the things I used to and because of that, I don’t get to see my friends anymore or just don’t have any friends anymore. I’m angry that just because I’m ill and can’t do certain things, I was too “boring” to hang out with. I’m angry that no one made any efforts to check I was OK after a while as it’s “just the usual illness again, she’ll be fine” or “She didn’t look that ill the other day, she must be faking.” I’m angry that I can never have the life I wanted and can never be the same light hearted, easy going friend I was before. For some people, that meant goodbye.
I’m angry that just because I got ill, I lost friends. As if it wasn’t bad enough that I’d lost everything I thought I knew and my entire life plans, I ended up losing the people I turned to for help. Losing friends because of my illnesses was never a blow I expected and it’s one of the ones that hit the hardest. I’m jealous that they get to walk away from my illness and I never can. I jealous that they get to live a normal life and tick all those adult boxes, while I sit in bed, unable to move, writing this. This is the most productive thing I’ve done all day and it’s taken me hours to write! I’m jealous and I’m angry and I’m bitter about it.
But I’m learning to cope and it’s taking me a while. That is OK. I refuse to feel bad about it anymore. I refuse to feel embarrassed by my illness and embarrassed that I’m still learning to come to terms with my illnesses and how to cope. I refuse to feel embarrassed about my party — I still had a good night, I still celebrated, but it was bittersweet. But I refuse to feel embarrassed because I’m lonely and only six friends showed up. I refuse to be embarrassed that some people couldn’t handle my illnesses and left. Because in the end, I know where I stand. I’m the ill one and I’m a different person because of it. As hard as it is, in these five years my life has completely changed and not everyone stuck by me. But that’s OK. It sucks, but it’s OK.
To those friends who still try, still text and still make an effort where they can, thank you. It means more than you can ever imagine. Yes, you’re busy and don’t text every day, but I know if I need you, you’re there. I’m not “too boring” for you. I’m not “too much negativity” for you. I’m not angry at you for living your life and “leaving me behind,” because when you can be, you’re still my friend and that means everything.
To those who left, I’m not even sorry. I will never apologize for being ill. This is not the life I would have chosen for myself but it’s the life I have now. If you can’t handle that, that’s fine but next time, please admit it. I’d understand. Unfortunately, I’m now used to it.
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