By Karen Lee Richards
Most people I talk to who have a chronic illness like fibromyalgia, ME/CFS or chronic Lyme disease say that their friendships took a serious hit when they got sick. It's not unusual for friends to fall away when you're no longer able to do things together as you once did. Although chronic illness can certainly put a strain on relationships, with a little attention, it is still possible to have positive, mutually supportive friendships.
Reassess Your Current Relationships
Before you start working on nurturing old friendships or building new ones, it's important to reassess your current relationships. When you were healthy and active, you could handle having lots of friends, but now you probably find that you need to focus your very limited energy on just a few special friends. As you take a close look at your friendships, there are two types of friends you may have to consider giving up:
Friendships based on common interests you can no longer participate in – These include work-related friends (when you can no longer work or are just too exhausted at the end of a work day to do anything but go home and crash) and friends you played a sport or shared a hobby with. Common-interest friendships will most likely fall by the wayside naturally.
Toxic friends – These are friends that tend to pull you down and increase your stress levels. Toxic friends are generally self-centered and take much more than they give. They may be negative, demanding, critical, needy and/or have lives that seem to be constantly full of drama. If you always seem to feel worse after talking to this person, they are probably a toxic friend. Real friends should build you up, inspire you and lift your spirits, not drag you down and leave you feeling depressed.
Eliminating toxic friends will allow you to focus your energy on real friendships with people who genuinely care and encourage you. Of course, if the toxic friend in your life is also a family member, you probably can't eliminate them completely, but at least try to limit your contact with them as much as possible.
Once you know which of your current friendships you want to maintain, here are five tips than can help you improve and sustain those friendships as well as building new ones:
1. Limit How Much You Talk About Your Illness
When you're in pain and feeling miserable, it's natural to want to share how you're feeling with your friend, but try to resist the urge. Frankly, no one – no matter how much they love you – wants to hear a detailed description of your health issues every time they talk to you. For one thing, it makes them feel uncomfortable and helpless. Once they've said how sorry they are to hear you're not feeling well and perhaps made the obligatory “Let me know if I can help” statement, most people are at a loss for anything else to say.
If your friend doesn't ask how you're feeling, resist the temptation to volunteer the information. If you're asked, try to limit your response to one or two sentences like, “I'm having a fairly good day today. Thanks for asking,” or “I'm feeling pretty rough today so I may not be able to talk for very long.” Then immediately ask your friend how she is doing or what's new in her life.
2. Keep Up with Current Events
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With a chronic illness, it's easy to become so isolated that you have nothing to discuss with friends other than how you're feeling. Make an effort to keep up with the latest news in whatever areas of interest you share with your friends, be it sports, politics, literature, or celebrity gossip. Today's technology makes it easier than ever to stay up-to-date on any subject you choose.
3. Make New Friends with Other Patients
No matter how much we love our old friends, sometimes we just need to talk to someone who truly understands what we're going through because they've experienced it themselves. As much as our old friends may try to empathize, no one can really understand what it's like to live with a chronic illness unless they have lived with it.
Once again, today's technology makes this easier than ever. Between online support groups and the various social media sites, in a matter of minutes you can find lots of potential new friends who will understand and support you.
4. Make Plans Tentative
One thing that can really put a strain on relationships is repeatedly canceling plans at the last minute. However, when you have a chronic illness, that sometimes can't be avoided. It's important to establish an understanding with your friend up front that whenever you make plans together, you may have to cancel at the last minute if you're having a really bad day. Then if you do have to cancel your plans, be sure to assure your friend that your heart wants to go, but your body just won't cooperate.
5. Remember… Friendship Takes Two
Sometimes we're so focused on wanting other people to understand our problems and needs that we forget to try to see things from their perspective. Try to remember that your friend's life is just as important to her as yours is to you.
Ideally, over time a friendship should be a balance of giving and taking. Some days you focus on her needs, some days you focus on yours; sometimes you initiate a phone call, other times your friend calls you. Don't try to keep score – just remember to hold up your end of the friendship. Often you don't even have to expend a lot of energy to do that. Many times a short email or text message letting your friend know you're thinking of her is all that is necessary.
~ Natalie Snapp
Karen Lee Richards is ProHealth's Editor-in-Chief. A fibromyalgia patient herself, she co-founded the nonprofit organization now known as the National Fibromyalgia Association (NFA) and served as its vice-president for eight years. She was also the executive editor of Fibromyalgia AWARE, the very first full-color, glossy magazine devoted to FM and other invisible illnesses. After leaving the NFA, Karen served as the Guide to Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome for the New York Times website About.com, and then for eight years as the Chronic Pain Health Guide for The HealthCentral Network.