When You Lose a Friend Due to Chronic Illness
Sometimes it’s better to say nothing than to say anything at all. Sounds good in theory, right? In real life, I totally suck at this. But I’d much rather deal with conflict head-on than to ignore it and pretend it doesn’t exist.
Relationships are so dang hard, and when you are chronically ill my experience has been they are even more difficult. Not only are you trying to navigate the tumultuous waters of human communication, you are also trying to connect with people who have little to no understanding of what it is like to live with chronic illness and chronic pain. I’m not saying chronic illness and pain trump other life challenges, but they do demand attention with their never-ending, in your face, 24/7 presence. Every decision, activity, outing, chore and errand must be strategically planned. Often times those plans are thrown out the window as unexpected flares pounce out of nowhere, leaving you stranded and helpless to do anything other than to try and survive the current health crisis. All of this is difficult for the chronically ill person to manage, so I am hoping this paints a picture of the additional stress chronic illness brings to relationships of all kinds: family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances.
I recently had a friendship come to an unexpected halt, and I was absolutely floored. I had heard of people losing friends over their chronic illnesses before, but I had not experienced it firsthand. Having someone who you thought was a close and dear friend slam the door in your face and say “I don’t want anything to do with you anymore” is utterly devastating and unexpected, to say the least. And the reason why they no longer want to be your friend is because each time they offer advice and try to tell you what you ought to be doing to live your best life, you give a rebuttal and remind them this is not their field of expertise, nor do you want or need their misinformed advice. After countless inadvertent requests to just stop, you decide to go the more direct route and say, “Enough is enough. I’m setting a boundary with you. I don’t need you to fix me; I need you to be my friend.” I guess reflecting back, I should have seen it coming. And here’s why.
I see it all the time, not only in myself but in others as well. Part of being a human is the innate belief that we are experts on every single topic, especially when it comes to other people and how they should live their lives, deal with their problems, and handle relationships and conflicts. I believe it all comes back to ego. Everyone has an ego. But I’m not here to talk about Freud and his findings. I think it’s fairly safe to say we all have one, and we all stand firm in the belief that this defensive part of our personality which thrives on proving we are “right” is considered the most conscious part of our personality. So with that being the case, it makes sense in a logical way why people always think they are right, myself included.
Having chronic illness sucks. Period. End of story. No further explanation needed. And navigating the healthcare system and trying to find good doctors and the right treatment plans is an exhausting process. Especially when it comes to diseases that have limited treatment options, such as autoimmune diseases like Lupus, where the treatment efficacy varies from person to person, as does the level of disease and the impact it has on each patient’s health. It takes a lot of time, work and effort to find a group of well-educated physicians who will also listen to you and display compassion for your struggle, who you can entrust your care to. And once you do find them, you still have to take a leap of faith day-by-day that they are making the right decisions on your behalf and believe they truly have your best interests at heart. If you are someone like me, who finds it hard to trust, this task is even more difficult. I also think being chronically ill incites a never-ending cycle of questioning your diagnosis. It’s a sort of self-preservation, a denial you put up to protect yourself from the harsh daily reality of being chronically ill and the fact you will be living with it for the rest of your life.
As my illnesses become more complex with additional challenges and diagnoses, I tend to vacillate between denial, anger and grief. Denial because accepting the reality that every day of the rest of my life will be extremely challenging in a variety of ways (and sometimes life-threatening) is just too much. Grieving because you’ve had to sacrifice so much of what you love about life due to the illness. Hobbies, social events, exercise, shopping, working, traveling or doing anything you damn well please at any time you’d like are all things of the past. If and when you get to partake in any of the things you used to do without giving it a second thought, now require tons of accommodations and help. And even with all of that, you may have to give up the things you enjoy the most indefinitely. It is an isolating and lonely life to live, especially for an extrovert who thrives in social settings.
Anger. This one deserves its own post. I will just tease the topic with this: anger will destroy you and your relationships if you let it. And that goes for anyone, not just the chronically ill.
People mean well. I do believe in the depths of my heart that either people want to try to fix the problem or they don’t really know what to say so they offer up advice (their ego speaking). I know they are just trying to help, but what you really want and need is for them to not try to fix the problem, especially one that has no simple answer or a “one size fits all” solution, if one at all. And when advice is offered from someone who does not live with the chronic illnesses you are experiencing every day, it’s downright hurtful and maddening.
The best thing you can say to me is, “I’m so sorry you are going through all of this. I’m here for you. I can listen. I am praying for you. I hate it that this is your daily life.” Heck, if my well-trained and educated physicians who are considered experts in their field are struggling to find the right treatment for me to have the best quality of life, why in the world would I seek the advice of a lay person such as a marketing expert, an accountant or even a teacher?
At the end of the day, I think all we all really want or need is to be accepted. Don’t you think? Accepted and understood, especially by our friends. Please accept the fact I didn’t ask for these illnesses. I didn’t ask for my life to revolve around my health and the never-ending problems. I just want to live a “normal” life and be able to do whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it. I don’t want to be housebound most of the time. I don’t want to take so much medication I can’t keep it all straight. I don’t want to have multiple doctor appointments every week. So please just love and accept me. It’s not your job to try and fix it.
My point is this: I need friendship, not your suggestions, opinions or advice on how to manage my life, my illness or my treatments. And if you can’t just be there for me and be supportive of the treatment plans I am on, I guess we can’t be friends, because friends support one another without pause or reservation. They encourage, not discourage. If they question, it comes from a place of love, not of superiority. And if they do offer unsolicited advice, and they are truly your friend who loves you unconditionally, you should feel free to tell them to take that ginger and shove it up their ass. Or eat it for themselves, whichever they prefer, because real friends understand all relationships have bumps in the road. And it’s real friends who stand by your side through thick and thin and forgive openly and freely without a second thought. Real friends will never leave you stranded, no matter the circumstances. Be a real friend. Don’t leave me because I told you to quit trying to “fix me.” Just stop. Just love me. And I promise I will love you too in return.
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