Being a good friend and having a chronic illness are not mutually exclusive. Of course not; you can still have a good time together, listen to your BFF’s adventures and share your problems. But it is harder to maintain friendships when you feel sick every day. It’s harder to be a part of their lives when you’re housebound. It’s harder to do fun things together when you have limited mobility. It can even be challenging to find common ground when your friend goes to college, builds a career, gets married and has kids while your life is on hold as a result of your chronic illness.
Much has been written about how you can support your friend in need – I recommend There’s No Good Card for This – but what about the other way around? How can you keep friendships alive when you’re the one who’s sick?
Here are some ideas to be a good friend even though you’re chronically ill.
9 Ways to Be a Good Friend Despite Chronic Illness
1. Keep in touch
That sounds simple, but when you’re riding the emotional roller coaster of chronic illness, there may be little energy left to meet up or connect virtually.
And if you feel a little let down by your friends because they’re less understanding than you’d expected, you might end up in a vicious cycle of ‘who should call who first’. I’m often the one who contacts friends to get together, but so what? That doesn’t make them less ‘true friends’ – it might have been the same if I were fully healthy. So reach out. Send a message, leave a sweet comment or write a heart-felt letter to your bestie.
2. Take an interest in your friends’ lives too – even if it hurts
When you’re hurting, the pain can become all-consuming, both physically and mentally. It’s difficult to focus on anything else, especially if there’s literally nothing else going on in your life. What’s more, compared to the life-changing situation you’re going through, the things your friends are talking about – horrible dating stories and office gossip – might seem frivolous and superficial to you.
But friendship is not a one-way street. What’s unimportant to you, can be important to your friend – and that’s what matters. So if you have caring friends who listen to your struggles, try to remember dates and events that are a big deal for them. Ask how their work day/party weekend/exotic holiday was, even if it stings that you can’t do those things. You can be happy for your friend and sad for your own missing-out at the same time.
3. Find new ways to do something fun together
I’ll never forget how my friend rallied a group of people to go for drinks early in the evening instead of their usual late hours, so I could join. How during my housebound days, one friend would come over every day for a 10-minute chat, while another friend brought over a big box of home-taped movies to watch together.
So get creative and come up with new ways to have a good time together. If you’re stuck at home, host a movie night, start a book club, cook an easy meal together, play board games or simply catch up with a big pot of tea (or a bottle of wine). Make a list of not-too-straining fun things you could do on good days, like having a picnic in the park, sing karaoke or browse book stores. What ever you both enjoy!
4. Talk about how you feel in a constructive way
If you want to vent about your problems, do it right. As justified as you are to talk about your pain, worries and hardship, try to remember there’s a fine line between sharing, complaining and co-brooding. Venting too much can actually make your stress worse. Of course you don’t have to fake you’re doing fine when you’re obviously not, but starting every conversation on a negative note makes it less appealing for your friends to ask how you’re feeling.
Sometimes it also helps to tell your friend what you need. For example, if you just want to get things off your shoulders and get a comforting hug, it can be hurtful to get well-meant advice about what you should do to fix your problem. What’s more, asking your friends if it’s a good time to get things off your chest also gives them the space to support you without taking your problems home with them.
5. Be clear about your limitations – and your possibilities
For most healthy people, it’s hard to understand what it’s really like to live with chronic illness every day. Especially when you have an unpredictable illness that can flare up unexpectedly, others don’t know what to expect.
So let your friends know what you can and cannot do. If walking for more than 10 minutes isn’t an option but you’re ok as long as you can sit down, your mates will understand than going for dinner together works better than suggesting a shopping trip. Most able-bodied people never have to think about things like how transport, noise and simply being upright can affect you. So don’t blame others for not immediately getting that ‘relaxing’ activities like going to the movies can still be too taxing for you. Talk about your limitations in such a way that you can find creative solutions together for overcoming obstacles.
6. Say “thank you” instead of “I’m sorry”
It’s easy to feel guilty towards your friend for having to ask for help, for cancelling your plans at the last minute due to flare-ups, for not always being there for their big moments. But be careful not to create an imbalanced friendship, in which you’re always apologizing for your limitations. You’re still kind, interesting and worthy of love. So instead of saying sorry, say thank you for their understanding and support.
7. Try to understand your friend’s point of view too
If you feel a distance growing between your friend and yourself now that you’re ill, try to put yourself in their shoes for a moment. Of course you can’t help being sick, and you never have to apologize for that. But your friend lost their friend as they knew you too. They miss how things used to be too. It’s only natural they’re disappointed when you can’t join your usual night out anymore. The dynamics between you may change too, and your friend needs time to adjust to this new situation, just like you. Sometimes this can lead to painful situations, but if you can talk honestly and constructively about how you’re both feeling, your friendship can become even stronger than before.
8. Call or talk face-to-face.
Texting and email are wonderful inventions but so much of what we say is non-verbal. Don’t let subtle messages get lost in translation and make time to catch up in real life or on the phone when you can!
9. Accept that friendship dynamics may change
Your forming party partner in crime may not be the one to have deep conversations with about how being ill is affecting you. But no friendship is the same: maybe having fun in a modified way with him or her still cheers you up, while you share your struggles with newly-met fellow spoonies.
It’s also important to realize that every friendship goes through different phases. When one of you moves away or becomes a parent, things often change too. Maybe you becoming chronically ill has changed how you connect now, but maybe your friendship would have been different any way, for other reasons. And although things may not be the same as before, that doesn’t have to mean change is bad. It’s a natural part of life. And who knows where those new roads will lead you.
How do you keep your friendships strong despite your chronic illness?
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