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How to Be a Great Friend When You Have a Chronic Illness

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On August 13, 2014, I was diagnosed with endometriosis. From that day, everything changed for me, and my world fell apart. I spent the next 18 months having two surgeries, five months off work and being angry — at my doctors for not diagnosing me sooner, at life for this terrible situation I found myself in, and rather strangely, at my friends, as I didn’t think they really understood what I was going through.

Having worked through much of this anger and grief, I started to think more deeply about my friendships and how my chronic illness has/will have an impact on them. Everything in my world is different now, but for my friends nothing has changed, and this disparity has created an invisible disconnect between us. A quick internet search revealed hundreds of articles about how to be a great friend to people with a chronic illness, but very little advice is available for people with chronic illness themselves who wish to preserve and grow their friendship despite their challenging life circumstances. Therefore, I have wracked my brains and talked to my healthy friends to compile this list of five tips for being an amazing friend despite living with a chronic illness:

1. Forgive them!

This is a big one so I’m listing it first. All of your “non sick” friends are going to mess up from time to time by saying and/or doing something which is insensitive, thoughtless, or downright rude. ‘‘But you don’t look sick” and ‘‘At least it’s not…” are classic and frequently cited examples. It can also be challenging to cope when “compassion fatigue” sets in and your friends stop being as proactively supportive and/or caring as they may have been when you first received your diagnosis. It’s important to try to remind yourself that in most instances these actions aren’t intended to be hurtful, and that many of your friends will have a sincere desire to support you. The brutal truth is if you haven’t lived with a chronic illness you simply cannot comprehend how relentlessly difficult it is. You probably know this if you are lucky enough to have had a time in your life before illness took over. My mother was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis when I was 5 years old, and I now realize I never showed her the compassion and care that she needed until I got sick myself and could comprehend her struggle.

Being able to forgive your friends for their faux-pas is going to give your friendships the space it needs to move forward and will also prevent you from wasting your precious energy on feeling perpetually hurt, bitter and resentful. Forgiveness takes practice and patience, especially when living with pain and fatigue, which can wear down your tolerance levels, but it is crucial if you aren’t going to be “the angry friend” for the rest of your life. Being “the compassionate friend” is a much happier place to be.

2. Choose your battles wisely.

It’s common knowledge in the chronic illness community that getting sick shines a luminous spotlight onto who your real friends are. Some of the people I considered to be my closest friends faded away from my life following my diagnosis, as they struggled to relate to this new phase of my life. This process can be desperately painful, and for many months I desperately wanted everyone to understand my pain and reach out to me. Sadly, it mostly didn’t happen.

However, a minority of my friends became my most tenacious supporters and advocates — reading up on endometriosis, sending thoughtful gifts, lending their shoulders to cry on and raising awareness of endometriosis on their own social media. These people are worth their weight in gold, and I would strongly encourage you to do everything you can to nurture your friendships with them (using the tips listed here are a good way to start).

Conversely, I recommend you follow the lead of your less proactive friends, meeting casually at larger group events where there is less pressure. Sometimes, being an amazing friend is as much about letting people go, or at least cutting them some slack when they fail to meet your expectations, as it is about going the extra mile. Maybe these people will come back into your life again or maybe they won’t. A much better use of your energy is to focus on the people who really will fight for you as much as you will fight for them.

claire with bridesmaids holding sunflowers

3. Educate them on what you need.

Even the most dedicated and thoughtful of friends are not psychic. If you don’t explicitly spell it out to them they will not know what it’s like living with a chronic illness, how your symptoms have an impact on your life, or how they can help you to overcome these difficulties.

This sounds obvious, but following my diagnosis I spent many months feeling angry and frustrated that my friends didn’t automatically understand what I’m going through or that I needed help if I was going to continue being the good friend that I wanted to be. They didn’t know that I’m too exhausted from fatigue to drive to the next town for social events, or that the anxiety my chronic illness has made being in large groups challenging. To me these things were obvious, but to my friends they really weren’t. With the friendships you want to nurture the most, you owe it to them to be clear about your needs. Having this conversation may seem like a scary thing to do, but it will stop everyone from stressing out and set out a new model for your friendship that can blossom despite the chaos and uncertainty that often surround chronic illness.

4. Embrace the little things.

Before I got sick, I was always the first girl to the party and the last one to leave, and would love meeting up with my friends every week for dinner, to go out shopping or on weekends away. Unfortunately, being sick has meant I often don’t have the energy or finances to do these things regularly anymore. To let them know I am thinking about them and that I care about their lives I have learned to embrace the little things that can make people feel special. This can include texting people to ask them about their day, sending “good luck” or “thinking of you” cards for big events you might miss. I’ve found that these small actions often have a big impact; when you show you are invested in their lives even though your own is crashing it is a big deal that won’t be forgotten.

5. Keep being your true yourself.

There’s a reason your friends like you; they were attracted to the unique blend of traits and quirks that make you special. Chronic illnesses sometimes try to take these wonderful elements away from you, and can leave you feeling depressed and worthless. Even in the toughest times, try to remember and connect with who you really are, and use your time with friends as a conduit to do this. Please know you are a strong person who deserves to have supportive and long lasting friendships, as this will help to motivate you to persevere even when you’re feeling defeated and exhausted. As the writer Elbert Hubbard put it: ‘‘A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

Being sick doesn’t mean you can’t still be an amazing friend. Now go out there and get to it!

Originally published: March 7, 2016
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