Last week, I wrote this long blathery post about navigating friendship with chronic illness. Then I sat on it for several days. I'm still sitting on it. Something about it didn't quite feel right...
Friendships, or really any relationships, and how they last or don't doesn't actually have much to do with whether you're chronically ill or not. Chronic illness is just one among the many things that can make or break any close relationships - things like going through a breakup, a divorce, a death in the family, a major career change, financial woes, the birth of a child... Anything that shakes you out of your routine and your comfort zone, and pushes you into the unknown, into grief and loss, or the new and unfamiliar. Anything that makes your life afterwards somewhat (or very) unrecognizable.
I've lost a LOT of friends over the past five years. If I started listing them all, I might have a full on self-hate and shame meltdown. ("It must be me!!!!" "What will people think????") It'd be like having a scarlet letter on my sweater - except F for Failed Friend.
The thing is - it is me, not them. Yes, me. My unwillingness to be taken advantage of. My unwillingness for a relationship to be completely on another person's terms. My failing tolerance of my kindness being taken for granted. My finally standing up for myself, and learning that I am worthy enough not to go chasing and pandering after people who don't really care about me the way I deserve.
Yep, that's all me. My process of learning to be assertive, and claiming my life. My figuring out how to live in alignment with my values. It's been a rough road figuring out how to apply these learnings in a graceful fashion - that much I admit. It's a process, it's all part of learning how to be an independent adult who does not compromise myself or make myself smaller and more apologetic to keep someone in my life. Friendships don't break just because one person figures out who they are, and how to be assertive - they break because of complicated and also uncomplicated parts that just don't fit together anymore.
I no longer cling desperately to those who have been around for a long time, just because of our shared history. If someone decides that what I am is not enough for them, not right for them, or worse yet - decides that I am a horrible, terrible, despicable person... Well that is up to them. I am done with fighting and chasing and negotiating and convincing them otherwise.
You want to think I'm terrible? Go ahead. That thought is yours, and you can have it. I sure don't have any space for it anymore.
One of my favourite authors, Liz Gilbert, shared a great Polish proverb a while back (on her absolutely fantastic blog/Facebook page - do yourself a favour and find it and subscribe to it). The proverb is:
Not my circus, not my monkeys.
It essentially means: this problem does not belong to me. I also apply it to the thought that: this opinion or feeling does not belong to me. I used to carry the weight of the world - or at least my known universe - on my shoulders. I always wanted to make sure everyone was okay, and that everyone liked me. What a ridiculous attitude! How horribly misguided I was to pick up such an enormous burden.
One of the gifts of my ill health has been to have to drop all of that and just take care of myself. Myself, and my most important healthy relationships (namely my spouse/partner plus a few other dear friends). My universe has become, necessarily, much smaller and simpler. It was scary and horrible at first, and now it is wonderful.
As my friend Alex likes to say:
Do less to do more.
Pare back everything so that you really do what is important. It's not only a survival tactic, but wonderful essential advice in this world where so much of everything is constantly in our face and consciousness online. Monica from Beyond Meds wrote a wonderful article about the necessity of withdrawal and isolation recently, and I couldn't have said it better myself.
Stripping away all the noise - including other peoples' opinions, tantrums, volatility, neediness... It may feel selfish, but it's been an essential part of my ongoing recovery. The more time passes, the more I realize this recovery is not just of my physical health, but of my core self. The me who was eroded through decades of bending to accommodate the people in my life who didn't really care about me as an individual, so much as a person who fit into their tidy set of beliefs and demands.
On that note, here is my honest and perhaps unusual list of tips on how to navigate friendship or really any relationships, with or without chronic illness:
- Become your own best friend. You have zero control over other people - you are the only one who you can truly trust and rely on 100%, so you'd better get in good with yourself.
- This will also help you keep your balance when a friend loss comes out of nowhere and blind sides you - this will happen, it's part of life unless you're willing to keep up the facade and people pleasing indefinitely (and isn't that exhausting?).
- There is no karma. There just isn't - I can't believe in karma anymore. Act in line with your values and leave it at that.
- If someone else doesn't treat you how you feel you deserve to be treated, and you're not okay with that, consider telling them. Chances are they will go ballistic. If they do, let them go.
- Learn to let people go.
- Learn to let people go.
- Learn to let people go. It feels almost impossible sometimes. But are the sacrifices you make to keep this person in your life really okay with you? What thousands of little compromises of the soul do you have to make to keep them in your world? It's the death by a thousand cuts. It's unsustainable, and will fall apart sooner or later, so why not just let them go?
- Learn how to be alone. It's an essential step to being good company. And it will keep you honest with others and yourself.
- Learn to be alone so you can know right from wrong. Never be the apath. (<--READ THIS - It is horrifying and essential knowledge on the road to being an adult. This knowledge allowed me to release the shame of being royally screwed over by a charismatic yet sociopathic ex-friend, but it also gave me the insight on the times I've been the apath and stood by while others have been mistreated.)
- Be kind, whenever you can. Do it for yourself even when you don't feel very generous. There is too much anger in the world, and kindness is the antidote.
- Figure out your needs, and learn to set boundaries. You can't do the latter without the former, and it's harder than it sounds, but more worth it than you can imagine.
- If being around someone drains you, exhausts you, sucks the life out of you, then see #5, 6, and 7, and let them go.
- Hold the friendships you maintain a little less tightly. Be in love with them, but be okay without them.
- Be the person who makes the time to talk. To check in. To listen. Really listen. Don't be a hero, just be there.
- Once you do this work, the right people will still be around, and your friendships will be healthier. The unhealthy ones will have been stripped away, as painful as it may be to let them go, your life will be more peaceful. New peaceful, whole, independent people will show up in your life and now you will have space for them.
Somehow, even though at a time it seemed impossible, my social universe has been re-shaping and re-building itself. People have shown up in the most unexpected ways... and they've filled those spaces that have been left empty - not too full though, just enough. They've left space and time that I desperately need for myself. And I can use the boundaries I've learned to build healthier relationships than before. Interdependent, not codependent. Respectful. Open. Everything held a little more gently, a little more loosely.
The people who have shown up, or who I've become closer to now, fit me - they are not situational or coincidental or friends of convenience. They are people who get me who I don't have to fake it with, or "be on" to be around, who I intentionally keep in my life. Many of them have experienced or been close to illness themselves, and they can be with it without being uncomfortable. I don't have as many friends (and certainly much fewer "friends" as in "friend me!") in my life, especially locally, but the ones I do have are really there. They know the real me, and they like the real me - and they don't fake it either.
Some old friends are still around, and somehow, new connections have also been happening despite how hard it is for me to get out and about. I've been especially filled with joy by strengthening my relationships with several strong, independent women who share a deep will to survive and thrive, and share healthy support. I feel so lucky to have each and every one of them in my life. Some of them are badass take no shit gals, and others are more sensitive beaming lights of positivity in the face of darkness. All of them are willing to dive deep, can handle the darkness, and celebrate the light. And they are all big on boundaries, confronting their shit, and being true to themselves.
A very old friend who has come back into my life, Meghan, made a wonderful analogy that friendship in the face of chronic illness (or maybe any serious life challenges?) is a lot like marriage. You make those vows, but this is when you see who really means them - many friendships like many marriages simply end in divorce. Others, well they're really there for the long haul.
For a long time, I'd been so heartbroken and focused on lamenting my lost friendships that I didn't see the precious people reaching out and opening their hearts to me. But they are here - I see you all now. My friend ecosystem sure looks a lot different than it did, but it fits, it's sustainable, and gosh darn it, I like you people.
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