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When Your Friends Don't Support Your New Physical Limitations

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“Don’t take it personal,” my fellow social worker friend said, “You are entitled to your feelings, but the truth is some people are limited in their ability to understand and empathize.” Her words not only provided the validation and empathy I needed but also a difficult lesson to be learned about individual and respective limits.

My close friends and I were planning a trip together. We had been talking about this trip for months and we were finally putting it all together. They know I struggle with my health, but like many people in my life they are unaware of the true impact chronic illness has on my day-to-day. When I see them, I try not to discuss my health issues too much. Like many people living with chronic illness, I wear a mask when I am with friends and family. A mask that laughs and smiles and hides the truth about the debilitating pain and discomfort I am constantly in. I do it for them and I do it for me. So my friends really don’t know the extent of how illness affects me. They know my diet is very restricted and I am unable to do a lot of strenuous activity but they are unaware of the impact chronic illness has on every part of my life and my daily functioning.

Before solidifying our plans I called them to explain that traveling can be difficult for me. I wanted them to know that when I travel I need to rest and can have days where I am unable to do much. I made sure to tell them that they should feel free to leave me and my husband behind and if they wanted to do things I was unable to, they should feel free to go on their own. They both acknowledged my concerns and agreed that it would be fine. My husband and I continued planning and my excitement continued to grow as the night went on until they texted me later in the evening. The text explained that they thought it would be best if we each just did our own thing since I would be needing constant rest and wouldn’t be able to eat many things. They thought the trip wouldn’t work out with all these issues. Their words broke my heart. They may not have intended to, but in one text they brought up all my insecurities, all my hardships and vulnerabilities about being sick.

I cried and felt the panic seep in. That voice in my head that tells me I am a failure because I can’t work full time, that tells me I am pathetic when I can’t get out of bed, that asks me why I can’t suck it up and keep going, that can’t accept being sick, that can’t accept the limitations of this body, was loud and clear. Chronic illness does this to you. It changes you, not just physically but mentally. It can make you feel depressed and anxious, worthless and broken.

I have grieved what once was. I used to be healthier and full of energy. I used to be able to eat whatever I wanted, do whatever I wanted, push through and keep going. My friends remember me that way. But now this body is limited and my life is limited. It took a long time to accept this, but I am finding strength in my fragility and lessons in my pain. It was difficult to adapt to my new limitations, even more difficult for my family to accept them. It really should not have been that surprising to have close friends struggle with them too. When my social worker friend, in all her wisdom, told me not to take it personal, she showed me that I can’t let these interactions define me or knock me down or minimize my growth. It was hurtful for my friends not to support me, but in the end it was not about my limits but about their own.

With chronic illness, there will be people who hurt you, misunderstand you, judge you, doubt you, say the wrong thing, make you feel small even without intending it. Do not take it personally. You may be physically limited, but they are limited in their ability to understand and empathize; they are unable to see past their own experiences. They have different hardships not related to illness. They walk in healthy bodies and live healthy lives; their difficulties do not reside in their bodies. They experience physical pain but not like you do; it is not their companion, it is not their shadow. They are unable to comprehend the realities of your life and therefore easily dismiss it as a nuisance or an idiosyncrasy.

This does not mean they are not your friends but it does mean that your friendship may be limited. It does mean that their limitations may not let you lean on them for comfort and may keep you from sharing your reality with them. More importantly, there will be others that will understand you; others who don’t know what it’s like but will still empathize and see things through your eyes. Those are the ones you look to for support and share your struggles with. Those are the ones who see your limits, recognize their own and know how to work around them.

You will lose friends, you will gain friends, but what matters is that you never lose yourself. Our limits do not define us, but they are a part of us and we must recognize not just our own but the limits of others as well.

Originally published: August 5, 2016
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