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I'm Sorry I Haven't Been a Great Friend

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Ever since the onset of my fibromyalgia symptoms, I’ve lost a lot of friends. Some of it was natural; I started getting sick when I was 18 and just beginning college, which is a transitional time anyway. But some people have drifted away because they think I don’t have time for them, or because I was always canceling plans and after awhile they stopped inviting me. I understand why they feel hurt or angry. I would too, if it were my friend who never seemed to have time for me. It also doesn’t help that I’m a private person, and so I wasn’t telling everyone all the gory details of why I was never up for hanging out anymore. A lot of people probably felt like I’d abandoned them. For all my friends who’ve felt that way, I’m sorry. Becoming a shitty loved one for awhile can be a side effect of chronic illness, especially when you’re young and still trying to figure out all of your life, not just your new life with your symptoms. I am truly sorry for letting people fade out of my life, and I’m grateful to everyone who stuck around.

For a long time, my fibromyalgia didn’t have a name. All I knew was I had a lot of mysterious symptoms — constant kidney infections, dizziness, fatigue, deep aches in my body that seemed to go all the way to the bone. I was in my late teens and early twenties, taking my first steps into college and the professional world. In my spare time, I enjoyed going to the doctor, getting blood drawn and urine samples taken and antibiotics prescribed. I was tested for everything from anemia to bone cancer, totally confusing my general practitioner in the process. During this period, my symptoms were basically labeled “mysterious chronic illness.” That was fun. I tried to, as my mother says, “keep on keeping on,” and for the most part, I did. I went to school full-time, or almost full-time. I worked. I did a capstone course for my major. I even wrote a novel. I did a pretty good job of living a normal life despite the symptoms. But you can’t do everything; eventually, something’s going to fall by the wayside. In my case, it was my friends.

It didn’t happen all at once. People started drifting away after the third or fourth time in a row of me canceling plans because I was too tired, or because I never could commit to hanging out, or because I would respond to a “what’s up?” text two weeks later. I felt bad; I’ve always loved my friends, and even though I’m not an extrovert, I enjoy spending time with the people I’m close to. But going to work and school was taking up so much of my energy, I didn’t have enough left to make the effort I needed to.

I don’t blame my friends. Like I said, I’m a private person, and I felt weirdly ashamed of having a chronic illness. I don’t know why. Maybe I was worried people wouldn’t believe me, or maybe I just didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. So from their perspective, it just looked like I was ghosting them for no reason. I was going on social media less frequently too, which closed off the one channel of communication that’s both easy and practically universal. I was missing out on the important things in their lives. I was becoming a terrible friend. I knew it, and I felt terrible about it, but I was too tired to do anything about it, even though I wanted to. Does that sound awful? It did to me. But a big part of my experience with chronic illness is that a lot of times, what I want to do and what I’m able to do are at odds. This is also why I’m still in college after five years. So as weird and selfish as it might sound to say that I really did want to make time for my friends but couldn’t, it’s true.

Recently, I’ve started trying harder to spend time with people. I’ve been sick for awhile, so I’ve learned the drill. It’s easier to work my life around my symptoms after five years of practice. I have a more flexible job too, and I’m taking most of my classes online this semester. I’m still not perfect. I still cancel plans sometimes. I don’t go out with my friends as often as I’d like to. But I’m glad that people still want to spend time with me, and I try to make the most of the time I do spend with my friends. I’m truly grateful for the people who understand my limitations and are willing to work with me: inviting me to do daytime stuff because I have trouble staying out late, giving me advance notice about events, being flexible if I’m a couple of minutes late. I’m happy I have people who will meet me halfway, and I’m meeting them halfway too. I’m working on being more open about what I can and can’t do, and about what having fibromyalgia means. I haven’t become the pied piper of chronic illness, but explaining a little bit about fibromyalgia to my friends helps us understand each other better. I’m thankful for all the great people in my life, and I know that the more I get used to life with a chronic illness, the more my life will get back to normal.

Photo credit: Hiraman/Getty Images

Originally published: December 2, 2021
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