Chronic illness and friendships: when friends abandon you during illness
Credit: ©Lelene / Adobe Stock
Chronic illness and friendships: an open letter to the friends I lost
For many people, unsupportive friends during illness are a common occurrence. And unfortunately, losing friends because of chronic illness is a cold, painful reality. And unfortunately, when friends abandon you during an illness, it can be hard to rebuild friendships. This is an open letter about chronic illness and abandonment from Alice to all her friends that disappeared during her illness.
I am not angry with you, and I never have been. I understand you never intended to hurt me. There was no malicious intent. But what unfolded was a by-product of the thoughtless-ness that is pervasive in our society. With all honesty, if the situation had been reversed, I cannot say I would have done any better.
After I became very ill, the friendships I had built disappeared in stages. There was the initial drop-off, the friends with whom there has been no contact since I became ill. Most of them were just friendships on the peripheries, but a few had been close enough to have come to my birthday party three months prior.
The fact that they disappeared immediately actually made their absence less noticeable because, when I first became sick, I believed without a shadow of a doubt, I would be better soon, and our friendships would return. Sadly, time went on, and I did not get better, and so our friendships never returned. I had no cause to miss them at the beginning, and, by the time it became clear my illness was not short-term, their absence had become the norm. Chronic illness and friendships were seemingly not compatible.
There were so many times when I’d reach out to them online, and, while they would answer, they made no effort to continue the conversation. I’d try to keep the conversation going but eventually would give up. This is because it was making me feel more lonely to try to reach out to a friend and to feel as though they did not care and were not there.
On the occasions they did reach out to me and wanted to visit, I would get excited, but then they’d disappear from months. It was as if they had gotten their fix and went back to their lives until they missed me again. I doubt they stopped to think that while they had other friends to fill their lives, I didn’t.
Year twelve was really the final nail in the coffin of those friendships. They claimed they were too busy studying to talk to me or visit me, yet they had time to play sports, attend parties, and participate in other social activities. I do not live far from them, and I could only last for short visits, so the idea that this was a logical excuse is ridiculous. It is also debunked by the next friend.
She was wonderful and, despite being the most studious person I’ve ever met, made such an effort to keep in contact with me over the years. Of my friendship group at the prior school, she was not the one I was closest to, but she was the one that went above and beyond. In the first year of my illness, I would sporadically show up at my school to attend a class or two. On numerous occasions, she would sit with me and neglect her own work in favor of helping me with mine as I was so far behind. I will always be grateful for that.
In the next few years, when I was no longer attending the school we had gone to, she was the one who talked to me most online and in person. Often when she’d visit, she’d bring random gifts for no reason. Those small acts of thoughtfulness made me feel like I had not been forgotten, even through her final year of high school. Her occasional messages and visits did not impact on her university admission score at all. The years passed, our lives changed, and we changed as people, so we no longer had anything in common.
It’s nobody’s fault. Very few people have the same friends at fifteen as they do at twenty. So, we barely ever talk anymore, but I will always fondly remember our friendship and be appreciative of what she gave me. If there was ever a day, we had enough in common to sustain a friendship, I would gladly do so. If there was ever a day that I could be the friend to her she was to me, I would gladly do so.
Now, into the eight-year of my chronic illness, I only have one friend left. I don’t say this out of self-pity, it’s just the truth. We have known each other for so long that though our friendship has waxed and waned over the years, we can remain friends after the time apart and with the differences in our lives. I am also close to my immediate family, which helps with the gaps in my relationships.
Chronic illness and friendships can be a difficult mix. In the first few years of my chronic illness, a few people in the outer friendship rings would reach out to me as a one-off. It did feel nice to be thought of, though I must say, one day every few months from different people does little to abate the loneliness and disconnection associated with a prolonged illness. I’m not criticizing them. I am glad they did it. I only say this to acknowledge we as a society have to do more to support our chronically ill and disabled populations.
None of the people I have mentioned above were bad people, they were regular people, like us all. A lot of the people around me were just ignorant and naive. Even though I always knew this, I still, in my darkest moments, felt there was something deficient in me that led them to not care about me.
If you know a person who has become suddenly ill or disabled, reach out to them in any way you can whilst also respecting their needs and privacy. Doing this on a consistent basis has the best effect. In our technology-filled world, this is easy to do. Texting, email, and social media make it easy to contact people, and our smartphones allow us to set reminders, say every month, to make sure we do so. Furthermore, in the event, the chronically ill or disabled person reaches out to you, make an effort to have a conversation.
Reaching out when you’re sick can be difficult and there is nothing that makes you feel more alone than when you try to alleviate that feeling and get nothing in return. If it is possible to spend time in person, from the perspective of both parties, that is wonderful. When you are there, realize that although the person is not entirely the same as they were before, they are still your friend.
I know it can be hard to see someone you care about when they’ve had a change in fortunes related to their health. Believe me, I even have trouble seeing myself this way. But try to acknowledge their differences and limitations whilst still seeing them through the lens of the friendship you cultivated over the years. Also, small acts of kindness go a long way. Bringing small gifts or food can mean a lot. Inviting the person in question to events, even if you know they’ll refuse, will make them feel as though they haven’t been forgotten.
If you, yourself, have become suddenly disabled or ill for an extended time, I hope you realize that it is not your fault, nor is it the fault of those around you. Chronic illness and friendships aren’t the most comfortable of bedfellows. Could your friends have done better? Yes. Did they do it intentionally? No. I only believe in blaming people when they act on purpose. When people make a mistake, we shouldn’t punish them. Instead, we should ask them to become conscious, understanding, and thoughtful. To teach society to act better next time, as I believe they can.
Does this empathy towards the people who unintentionally let me down make me feel better? In some ways, yes, and in others, no. It has allowed me to find clarity about the reality I find myself in. It is has stopped me from wasting energy on useless and illogical emotions. On the other hand, none of that lessens the loneliness I feel. There are times when the loneliness is so strong it can be physically felt. The obvious fix to this suffering, making new friends and spending time with them, is something out of the question.
In order to make a friend, a person needs to be in situations where they can meet someone. Then, through work, time, and shared experiences, to cultivate a friendship, which I do not have the energy to do. The only other option for me is to rekindle the friendships I lost, something I am not comfortable with due to the broken trust. I hope the next person in my situation, through having more aware and informed people around them, will be able to keep the friendships they have, so they can feel a little bit less alone.
For now, I take comfort in the connections I have left. Maybe one day, I’ll make some new friends, who will see me for the person I am now and will like me all the same.
*Alice is a pseudonym
UR is on a mission to change the way we talk about sensitive health topics, one awkward blogpost at a time. Posts by this author are from the Editors at UR.