Your illness affects your friendships all the time. But I don't have to tell you this – you're living it. In fact, studies show that one third of chronic illness sufferers encounter social problems on a day-to-day basis.
People need social interaction and human contact. We’re not meant to be on our own.
So it’s only natural for you to feel worse when you feel isolated from your social circle, because they don’t understand you that well anymore.
I’ve been dealing with my own chronic illnesses for 12 years now. I’ve experienced all the highs and lows that friendships can bring you.
And I'll cut straight to the chase. You're going to have some great experiences, and some hardcore learning curves.
Here are my insights on chronic illness and friendship that you may find interesting.
You Will Lose Some Friends and That's Ok
I know this is a time where you could use the support of all your friends. Unfortunately, not all people are equipped to help you right now.
You may notice that some of your friends find it difficult to relate to you. Others could be struggling to process the situation altogether.
Your life has changed in fundamental ways. Which means your needs, wants and outlooks on life have adjusted too.
The core beliefs or similarities that you may have shared with a friend could be different now. And, of course, your friend may just lack the understanding of how to deal with this situation in the best way possible.
Some things to consider about your friends:
Your illness is a strong reminder to others about mortality. It lets them reflect on their own life and the fact that they are not as invincible as they thought. When you’re young – this is pretty overwhelming and not everyone can handle it.
- Friends know how to help you if you have the flu. It’s a common problem and has a simple solution. When it comes to chronic illness, there’s nothing common or casual about it!
Some of your friends may not know how to handle it or talk to you anymore. Especially if they want to help you but don’t know how to go about it.
They could feel awkward and insecure about asking you questions. They may not have any past experiences to relate to – or share with you to show empathy. Overall, it can feel quite uncomfortable.
- Your values, interests and experiences play a big role in helping you choose the right friends. And when something as life-altering as a chronic illness comes your way, it can completely transform your outlook on life.
While you grow and change as a person, you may realise that some of your friends just don’t share your same beliefs anymore.
- A chronic illness is serious, and it deserves a certain level of maturity and resilience to deal with – which some of your friends may not understand yet.
You may find that some friends don’t get the gravity of your situation and downplay it quite a bit. Either by mocking or criticising the fact that you are less able than you were before.
Some friends may have no experience with chronic illness at all, yet feel as though you should follow their unsolicited advice. They can be quite forceful or judgemental if you don’t.
No matter the situation, try to remember that it’s not personal when this kind of discord happens. If anything, it tells you more about their personality, or where they are in their lives right now, than it does about you.
Remember that it’s near impossible for any friend to understand what you are going through right now. So, if they are trying to be supportive then it needs to be acknowledged and appreciated.
When a friend says or does something hurtful, try to remember that it’s not intentional. They probably have no idea what to say to you or how to handle the news you tell them.
But don’t be scared to tell them if their actions or words are insensitive. You need to stand up for yourself and set your boundaries.
Dealing with Friendship Losses
Finally, remember that not all your friends are going to be able to give you the same amount of support – and that’s okay too!
Don’t stop reaching out to people and don’t stop communicating what you need in your life right now. Your efforts will attract the right people into your life.
For the friends who fade from your life entirely, try to appreciate the friendship you had and the fact that your paths crossed. It may not be the right friendship for you right now, but who knows what the future may hold.
And to the friends who you see less but still make an effort – these are people worth appreciating. Like I said, not everyone is equipped to give you all the support you need and it’s normal.
If you are frustrated with these friends, then it’s worth revising your expectations. Be grateful for the time you do share, and be open about the fact that you enjoy spending time together.
Saying something as simple as, “I know how much things have changed, but I really appreciate the fact that we can still spend time together. Thank you.”
And finally, don’t ignore the friends that are by your side because you are more focused on the losses you’ve had than the gains.
I know there are moments where you feel isolated and alone. But the people who stick by your side deserve a great deal of love and appreciation.
Channel your energy and time here, because these friends often become your pillars, and you can become theirs in return.
Communicating your limits becomes a priority
It’s good to push yourself in social contexts when you have a chronic illness. Go out and do new things. See new places. Try fun activities.
As long as you use each experience to learn about what your body can handle and what it can’t – keep moving. The more you try, the better you’ll be at understanding your body’s limits.
Five things to remember about setting your limits with friends:
Be with friends you can trust
When you’re pushing yourself in a social situation, make a point to be with friends that you know you can rely on. If at any point you want to stop or you encounter an issue, it’s best to be around someone that can help you.
When you’ve had enough – say something
I know it’s tough, but articulating how you feel is very important when you’re with your friends.
- If you’re out together and you want to leave, you need to tell your friends that you’ve had enough and it’s time to go. Even if you’ve only been there for 5 minutes.
- If you are in a situation that makes you uncomfortable, explain why it’s unsettling for you and stop.
- If you feel that your friends are not respecting your boundaries, or are being insensitive to your circumstance – you need to stand up for yourself in a direct, but informative way.
For example, if they’re joking about something that’s a sensitive health-related issue. Just say that you’d rather not joke about that because it’s hurtful given your circumstances.
In the end, the objective is to be clear, direct and informative. That way your friends can understand you a little better and help you a bit more.
Don’t feel guilty about setting limits
When you do set your limits and boundaries – don’t feel guilty about it. I know it’s easier said than done, but it’s true.
Feeling guilty for being chronically ill is pointless because you are not to blame for your illness.
If this is something you’re struggling with right now, take a look at this article I wrote on Overcoming Guilt and Chronic Illness.
Remember that a good friend will respect your boundaries. They will understand if you need to go home and rest. And they will understand if you feel their jokes or advice have gone too far.
Always show appreciation
More than anything, the friends that stick by your side and respect your boundaries deserve your appreciation and respect back.
Chronic illness affects all your loved ones in some way. And the people who stick with you through thick and thin, have made sacrifices to be there.
No, it’s not as hard as being the person with the actual condition. But remember that no one is obliged to be a good friend through your health journey. Those people who choose to, need your appreciation.
If you want to do nothing – that’s okay!
What you’re going through right now is mentally and physically draining. You need more rest now than you ever have before. You need more time to be introspective, learn about yourself, work on your mental health and just do nothing at all.
These are all normal and necessary feelings. There’s nothing wrong with being on your own if it’s what you want to do. But be open with your friends about how you feel during those times.
Explain why your time alone is important to you. And make it clear that just because you might say no to seeing them, it doesn’t mean you don’t want to get invited at all. You still want to feel included, even if the timing is wrong.
Talking About Your Health Becomes Easier
If you have a chronic illness, then you spend a great deal of your time thinking about how you can explain your condition to others. You want the people you love to understand what you’re going through.
In the beginning, articulating yourself is tricky. But your ability to explain what you’re going through plays a big role in your ability to bond with others.
If you can explain to your friends what you’re going through, you’re a lot more likely to get the support you need.
Your friendships depend on your ability to communicate your health issues better. I know it’s not easy, but I’m going to share techniques that have worked for me, and, hopefully, they will get the process going for you too:
5 ways to help you speak about your health
Try speaking to your loved ones 1-on-1
If you find big groups of people a bit overwhelming, especially if you have only recently been diagnosed.
When you’re ready to dive deep into a heartfelt conversation about your health, try and make a plan to speak to your friends in a more intimate environment.
You will feel safer when opening up to them. And you will have the peace of mind to go through your thoughts properly.
Use any health issues they’ve experienced as a reference
Something that can make you feel very isolated when you talk about your health, is the fact it’s unlikely that any of your friends (pre-diagnosis) have experienced anything similar.
They want to be able to show they care, in some way or another. So, if you know of any injury they’ve experienced in the past, use it to find a common grounding.
Most people have been on bed rest before, taken stronger medication, or even used crutches. It’s not nearly as serious as anything you’re going through now – but it’s a mutual point of reference you can share.
Let them join you at a doctor’s visit
It can be difficult to convey the severity of what you’re going through when you’re on your own.
If this is happening to you right now – why not take your friend to your next doctor’s appointment? Or even record the crucial parts of the appointment for them to listen to.
I have found this to be very useful because it really helps your friends understand your world as a chronic illness sufferer a lot better.
Do some guided research on your condition together
Doing a search together opens the opportunity for you to encourage your friend to ask you any questions they may have in an objective way.
It’s also a great way to break the ice and talk about all the uncomfortable, awkward and weird stuff that often comes with a chronic illness that you don’t mention.
Either way – it helps your friend ask more questions (which you should encourage) and get a better understanding of your situation.
When they want to help – let them
It is so frustrating to see someone you care about suffer and not be able to help them recover in any way.
But, there are ways your friends can help you that are practical and actually useful.
Things like help with grocery shopping, catching a lift somewhere, or even just coming over for a good chat are so important to use. So if they want to help you – why not?
You Will Become More Creative with How You Stay in Contact
Unfortunately, most chronic illnesses have a mind and agenda of their own. Any plans you make in advance need to come with the following disclaimer:
“I will be able to attend/join on the basis that I am feeling well that day.”
There’s no telling what you can commit to next week, and what plans will fall through. And that’s mainly because your health becomes so unpredictable.
Whether it’s crippling pain, brain fog, mental health concerns or sheer exhaustion – these symptoms can make your plans change within an hour.
So, if you’re going to make things work in a friendship – flexibility and creativity become important skills to have.
And you’ll notice that if you put in the effort to be open about your health, you will have loyal friends that are left unbothered by your last-minute decisions.
Something to Remember:
- Your body is going through a lot, so if you’re tired – rest. You are not lazy or uncaring if you can’t make an event and your friends need to respect this.
- If you can’t follow through on a commitment, you can always reschedule to do something else. It’s unlikely to be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
- You can actually have quite a bit of fun finding alternative ways to keep in touch with your friends. It gives you a chance to spend time with your friends in ways that you have never done in the past.
Three innovative ways you can keep in touch with your friends
Whether it’s a phone call, video call, or just regular messages where you send all your updates. Being able to virtually check in on your friends helps you keep that bond when physical presence isn’t possible. Here are three of my favourite alternative get-together options I use all the time.
Have a virtual coffee catch-up
This is something that I really like to do. Instead of going to a cafe, I’ll make my own cup of tea at home and my friend will do the same – and we can have a drink ‘together’ while we catch up.
Start or join a club
Whether you’re into reading, art, sports, dancing, movies or anything else – use it to unite your friends and start a social group.
Make a plan to meet once a month, partake in the activity together and catch up. It gives you the opportunity to keep making fond memories together in an environment that’s safe for you too.
Start a Whatsapp group
I like to have a Whatsapp group with my friends, where I can send updates about my health.
It’s a great way to make everyone feel like they’re in the loop and part of your life. I also suggest having a second group that you use for all social events, notices and pictures shared between your friends.
So even if you’re not always with them, you’re still kept in the loop.
Your Friends Will Learn About Empathy
Remember no one else can know exactly how you feel.
Do you recall a time when you were a child and your teacher made you literally stand in someone else’s shoes to help teach you the metaphor? That’s activity applies here too.
What you’re going through right now, as someone with a chronic illness, is so difficult to understand. And it’s even harder to explain when you, yourself, don’t understand everything just yet.
Remember, this can also make it very difficult and confusing when a friend tries to help you. This is a time where it’s easy to have miscommunications and lose touch with one another. But it doesn’t have to be.
A great activity to do for both you and your friend is to think about:
- 3-5 things you want the other person to know about what you’re experiencing in the friendship right now.
- 3-5 questions you have for the other person that you’ve been too shy or unsure about asking from the beginning.
Sit down and go through this. It can be quite energy-draining and a few tears will be shed. But if you’re good friends with the other person’s interest at heart – this will do wonders for your friendship.
You Will Uncover Your True Friendships and Make New Friendships
Your life has changed a lot – I know.
Your routine is different.
The concerns you have are different.
The obstacles you face are different.
It’s only natural that your priorities will be different now too.
Such an enormous shift in your life means that you may have a lot less in common with some of your friends. Equally, you find yourself making new friendships quite unexpectedly.
Life experience shapes us. And when we go through similar journeys as friends – it bonds us. So remember that it’s okay if you find yourself having less in common with a friend you used to be close to.
Not all friends are meant to become life-long friends. Some are just meant to be there during a specific period.
Each one of our friends fulfils a purpose and teach us something new. Appreciate the ones that fade for what they brought to your life. But never let that loss get in the way of the friends who are standing by your side right now.
A really common expression amongst the chronic illness community is that it’s amazing how chronic illness turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends.
And it’s true! If you find yourself in this tumultuous time, where your friendships are changing quite quickly. Here’s what you need to think about:
- Creating bonds with others takes time and patience – so don’t give up on new friendships.
- As your friendships change, use this time to really see which friends you can rely on and which ones you can’t.
- Use social media to speak about your condition. There is a huge community of people on Facebook and Instagram that open up about their health issues and want to connect with you.
This can give you a sense of belonging to a much bigger community. And it also means you have virtual friends with whom you can bounce ideas, vent, and develop relationships.
If you haven’t taken to social media where you can share your health journey – I really suggest giving it a go.
In a world where we can all feel so alone, this helps you connect with like-minded people who are looking for the same support that you want.
One thing I love about posting short stories on Instagram is that I get such insightful feedback. There’s nothing better than actively supporting others, while they do the same for you.
If you're trying to improve your relationship with your friends. I highly recommend checking this article out next: Being a Good Friend When You're Chronically Ill.