When Healthy Friends Think Being Sick Makes You 'Lesser Than'
We met during the first week of school as “Susan” lived a couple doors down from me in residence. Immediately we hit it off, sharing many similar interests and hobbies. We enjoyed each other’s company and laughed a lot together about relationships and school. Early on I explained to Susan I had chronic fatigue syndrome (also known as ME, myalgic encephalomyelitis) and all the drastic ways it impacted my life and wellbeing. She was very empathetic and exchanged kind words whenever it came up, in her usual soft-spoken demeanor. Naturally a couple years later, when I was looking for roommates to share a house with, she was the first to come to mind.
During the first year we lived together, things went great. My ME seemed to be easing up, and my body responded well to my part-time schedule. I felt relief that a sense of normalcy was returning back to my life – but it was short-lived. By the second year of living together, I had a cascade of infections that riled my ME back into the waves of unpredictability I thought were behind me. This was when I started noticing a huge shift in how Susan related to me. A side emerged from her that I had never witnessed before.
It began when I had to cancel plans to go see a movie, due to my ME. I was shockingly met with fury. I “didn’t really want to go with her” and “used my health as an excuse,” she shouted at me. She couldn’t have reconstructed a narrative farther from the truth. This, even despite a three-year history of me being a very predictable and honest friend. Her comments also reinstated the misconceptions of my already heavily stigmatized disease. No matter what heartfelt explanations of my physical experience I tried to convey, the empathy that I needed now was completely revoked. There was an underlying conviction to her tone that I was at fault. She demanded an apology and reassurance that I still wanted to be friends, and liked her. This would be an ongoing toxic pattern for the next two years, as her resentment and bitterness towards me only grew with each cancellation.
It reached its pinnacle when I had to cancel a week-long interior camping trip because of a ruptured ovarian cyst. I was completely bed-bound in extreme 10/10 pain, clearly unable to portage or paddle a canoe. She was convinced I could still go and wasn’t “trying hard enough.” I saw how willing she was to put my health at risk, and deny the truth of my experience. My punishment was apologizing for ruining her vacation, paying the cancellation fee and she vowed from that day forward to never make plans with me again.
What Susan failed to understand time and time again was that I was just as upset to cancel plans as she was. She got space to express her anger, yet failed to recognize or give reciprocal space for mine. Choice and control are constantly overthrown when you live with a chronic illness. Your body has the final say in plans, regardless of how determined you are to carry them out. This resulted in me experiencing anxiety anytime I made plans, or had to say no to them. “No” triggered her insecurities and was taken very personally, despite me explaining cancelling plans due to illness is not personal. Her empathy had come easily before because she was never confronted with the frustrations and let-downs chronic illness yields.
The underlying theme of blame and shame now became omnipresent in our relationship. This dynamic seemed to suggest that there was some serious flaw in my character since I had not “succeeded” in being well. It implied that one having good health is somehow on superior ground. From this pedestal comes an entitled sense of righteousness for “the heathy” to tell “the sick” what they are doing wrong. I recognize this behavior as a means of distancing oneself from a similar fate; creating this divide somehow keeps their fears of illness at bay. The effort at creating this separation is only too familiar to those who are ill.
What she failed to recognize was her badge of good health was just as much a reflection of herself as my health was of me; they weren’t. When I first became sick, I was a competitive athlete and loved health and wellness. Chronic disease does not discriminate. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time, regardless of how much kale you eat, yoga you do and how much you think you are different then “those other people.”
Our changing relationship illuminated the feeling of division between the the “land of the sick” and the “land of the well.” One who only has the vantage point of being healthy has literally no clue what inhabiting the other world is like. One should not have to experience illness in order to listen, validate, empathize and be an understanding friend to another. When I think about the extensive amounts of energy spent in vying for Susan’s understanding or “proving” my illness, I cringe thinking how it could have been better spent. Instead it was wasted, as she continually undermined the truth of my experience. Susan was a very good friend in wellness, but this did not transpire in sickness.
I decided one day that enough was enough, after five years of friendship. I knew the relationship was beyond repair when her voice consistently violated and dominated my own, so I could no longer hear it. I needed relationships where I felt validated for what I knew in my own body, and where my voice was respected and heard. I have never looked back. Since then I have come to know friendships like I once envisioned, and it has allowed me to cultivate the self-love and acceptance I need in order to thrive in this experience with my body. To have a “no” met with — “So sorry you can’t come, hope to hang out with you when you’re up for it.”— is a very refreshing change, and heals everything that came before it.
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Image by Christina Baltais