Is it possible to have friends as a person with chronic illness?
This may seem like a silly question, because obviously the answer is yes, but I know that as a person with chronic illness, friendships can be tricky to navigate at times.
Friendship, whether you are healthy or less so, can be a sensitive topic. There is a huge pressure, perhaps fuelled by social media, to be part of a large friendship circle, continually What’s App-ing each other, having boozy nights out and sharing every detail of our lives over a latte in a cute coffee shop.
Now I suspect that image isn’t quite true for many of us, even if it is what is depicted in the movies or shows such as Sex and the City or Friends. It often becomes even more difficult if you add chronic illness or disability into the equation. Research by Sense, and disseminated by ‘Campaign to end loneliness’ found that up to 50% of disabled people will be lonely on any given day. Problematically, it was found that 49% of non-disabled people feel that they don’t have anything in common with disabled people.
Many people with chronic illness with begin to suffer with health issues once they are in their late teens or in adulthood. Many will, therefore, already have a friendship group when they become unwell. However, chronic illness can lead to a change in the dynamics of existing friendships. Priorities change. The parameters shift. Late nights at a bar may no longer be a possibility. Changes to diet dictate restaurant choices. Unexpected medical appointments mean the cancellation of dinner or movie nights. Suddenly, those of us with chronic illness are no longer quite the same ‘friend’ as we once were. Some friendships will grow, even strengthen, when illness becomes part of one of our realities. Others, will gradually gradually go by the wayside.
It is a big taboo to lose friends or have them drop you. But that happens often when you have chronic illness, and it is exactly what happened to me once I had been unwell for about a year. I was on medical leave from my work, and so didn’t see my work friends or my other friends on a frequent basis for quite some time. When I was at work I didn’t have the energy to both work and then stay for drinks afterwards or see a friend for dinner or drinks or go the gym. I headed home as soon as possible to rest and recuperate from the day, trying to summon up some energy for the rest of the week.
Then I got dropped by a close friend. A friend of nearly ten years. I have been told by mutual friends that it was due to my conditions and the fact that I wasn’t a ‘participating’ friend any more. It still hurts a little that someone I went shopping with, shared secrets with, went on holiday with, would do this. But a part of me also thinks that I don’t need a so-called ‘friend’ who isn’t supportive of me and won’t stick with me through the hard times. Because life isn’t just drinking wine and wandering around the shops on a Saturday afternoon.
It was being dropped by this friend that led me to largely opt out of being friends with anyone for about a year. I kept in touch online with a few, and saw one friend in person several times, but kept to myself other than that. I had wrongly come to the conclusion that my conditions meant I wouldn’t be seen by others as worthy of being a friend any more. I was embarrassed, too humiliated by my symptoms and conditions and how my life felt as though it spiralling downward, to see friends. I felt as though they were judging me (which they were not), or thinking that I had amounted to nothing (which they did not, and isn’t true of any of us). A second, lesser, reason was feeling unwell. They were many weeks that going into central London to meet someone or even out to a local restaurant or coffee shop just wasn’t going to happen. It was only when a friend’s daughter had her first birthday, which I found out about on Instagram, and I realised I had last seen this friend when she was pregnant with her little girl, that I knew things had to change.
So I slowly got back in touch with a few friends. Those that I truly valued as friends, and wanted to see. Those that lifted me up and put a smile on my face. Those that listened if I had something difficult to say, but who also wouldn’t judge if I didn’t have lots of tales to tell of exciting adventures. Because at that point, the only excitement I got was medical tests, and we know that isn’t ‘good’ exciting. It is those friends that are worth keeping hold of, and those friendships that are important to nurture over.
So how can you negotiate friendships with a chronic illness?
Saying all this, I am not going to sugar coat it and say that it is as easy to maintain friendships as it is when you are well. Chronic illness and friendships may be a bit more tricky. Symptoms and medical appointments will get in the way. It may not be possible to drop everything and go out for last minute drinks, or drink at all for that matter. Often alcohol and health issues just doesn’t work!
However, there is absolutely no reason that you can’t be friends with someone, or part of a friendship group, if you have chronic conditions. Maybe you will actually be a better friend. I have always wondered whether (some) people who battle difficulties have more profound empathetic abilities and are able to relate to others on a deeper level as they themselves have gone through a lot.
I would say communication is the key to it all, as cliched as that sounds. I find that explaining my conditions and my symptoms is hugely beneficial. It is particularly helpful to explain why you aren’t able to do certain activities, and why, depending on your conditions, you may have to see each other less in person. That conversation may be difficult; embarrassment over what your body does can affect many of us. But if a person is truly worthy of being your friend then they will listen with empathy, without judging at all.
If you are able, I find that keeping in touch online is really helpful. Using messenger apps, email or text is great for times when you haven’t seen friends but want to feel in touch. I know it makes my day when I get a text or Instagram DM if I haven’t been feeling well. Just knowing that someone is thinking of you is a sure-fire way to make you smile and feel supported.
I would actually go as far as to say that friendships can be stronger, more honest and more fulfilling when one, or both of you, have medical issues. Knowing that the other person has stuck by you despite difficulties makes a friendship seem more rock-solid and ‘true’. I don’t have as many friends as I did before I became unwell, but the friends I do have are amazing. They ask me what I want to do when we meet, don’t expect me to stay out late and work around my limitations. We aren’t going to meet to go to a noisy bar because migraine means that is never going to happen, and if it is a hot day we will sit in the shade rather than in the sun. So instead we have a coffee and in the summer we have a picnic so I can bring my own food rather than try and negotiate my dietary requirements in a café or restaurant.
So don’t write yourself off as a bad friend because you have medical issues, you just need to find, or stick with, those who see past the ‘medical’ and see you as an individual. Because, metaphorically speaking, we all come in different shapes and sizes. And that’s what makes us unique.