One of the most painful things about being sick is having friends abandon you. When I wrote 5 Reasons People Abandon a Sick Friend in 2014, I was shocked by the sheer number of readers sharing their stories–friends who left after they got diagnosed with a mental illness, lupus, fibromyalgia, myasthenia gravis (like me), POTS, CRPS, and other diseases, or people who lost friends after experiencing tragedies like strokes, heart attacks, and car accidents. It was heartbreaking. As I wrote in my article, it’s more complicated than “true” friends versus “fake friends” although that is sometimes the case. I also have heard from healthy people who read this blog who feel guilty for abandoning their sick friends and want to know how to restore those relationships. I’m not a fan of preaching to people (saying “you should forgive”) because I don’t know the particulars of each person’s story, but personally, I believe in second chances. While most friends who left me never returned, there have been a few beautiful instances of reconciliation.
The worst case of a friend leaving happened in 2008 when I was 24-years old and diagnosed with and hospitalized in critical condition with myasthenia gravis (MG). The day I was hospitalized, a good friend from high school, Ken, told me he would visit me the next day. He never came. Somehow, days turned into weeks, which turned into years. And I never saw him again. Adding insult to injury, we lived in the same neighborhood! So, if you’re not in the mood to hear about forgiveness, I understand if you skip this blog post. Your pain is real. I also know that I am not a perfect person. If you’re a healthy person reading this who feels regret or wants to understand your sick friend better, I get that too.
5 Tips for Reconciling with a Sick Friend:
Really Apologize: When famous people say terrible things, they usually double down on their remarks. We hear faux apologies like, “If you were offended or took it the wrong way, I’m sorry.” I had a refreshing experience over the holidays when I saw a friend I hadn’t seen in a decade. We were very close in high school and throughout most of college. In fact, she was a supportive friend to me after I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder (diagnosed at 18). At some point, she moved away and never told me. We lost touch. So she wasn’t there when I got sick with myasthenia. She asked my help in dealing with a relative’s illness. Of course, I said yes. Our first night having dinner in years, she said, “I’ve been a terrible friend. I’m sorry.” Truly, that was all I needed to hear. She meant it, and I don’t hold anything against her. Contrast that with other friends. I once ran into an old friend I used to go to church with for years who stopped talking to me after I got diagnosed with myasthenia. Some of her relatives, who I was never close to, even visited me in the hospital. I never understood why she left. All these years later, after T and I ran into each other, we agreed to have lunch. She explained her absence along the lines of, “I would have visited. I didn’t really know where you were.” For whatever reason, the subject makes her uncomfortable. But without that honest discussion–similar to the kind I had with my high school friend–our relationship exists on a somewhat superficial level. Our friendship is not what it used to be.
Change: Apologies are nothing if they’re not accompanied by change. (I can’t contact every friend who left me post-diagnosis. With five illnesses, I’m constantly trying to keep up with my jobs. I do it well but I have almost no free time. Illness is a full time job.) There have been a few instances where I did ask friends why they didn’t visit. One of my best friends from college said, “Are you supposed to visit? I didn’t know that.” He had no experience with loved ones in the hospital. Throughout my childhood, my family was visiting loved ones with cancer so this was common sense to me. He did make it a point to visit me after our conversation. Today, we are more than friends–he frequently checks up on me and makes me laugh through the pain. He says I am the sister he never had. I am an only child; he truly is the brother I never had.
Communicate in Your Friend’s Preferred Method: Some people, like me, prefer talking over the phone or in person–especially if it’s about something serious–not social media. (I only joined Facebook in 2011!) Other people prefer text messages, Facebook, and gchat. I’ve learned to apologize to friends using their preferred method of communication.
When I get an instagram request from someone who left me post-diagnosis–someone that I spent numerous holidays with, knew for a decade, and I’m sure has my phone number (or knows someone who does), that confuses me. I get Facebook requests from strangers, bullies from elementary school, and random people (that I think are friending me because they read my blog) but who instead propose marriage! A good friend stopped talking to me the day I was diagnosed with myasthenia. In our last conversation on the phone, she seemed choked up and said, “Take care of yourself.” (I was kind of confused as she had been a supportive friend during my previous struggles with polycystic ovarian syndrome, PCOS.) I hadn’t heard from her in six years and suddenly, she sent me a Facebook friend request. I didn’t reject but I didn’t accept it. In our insta-world where we’re all on tablets, I think we use the word “friend” too casually. I cherished our friendship too much to put her on the same level as bullies and random men proposing marriage. A few days after sending the request, she sent me a long email apologizing for the end of our relationship. She said she hoped we could be friends again. Instantly, I forgave her and I look forward to rekindling our friendship.
Keep Inviting Your Friend: You never know what your friend can or can’t do. In July, I danced a lot at my family reunion. (I used to take a lot of ballroom dancing classes before I got sick.) This week, I was invited to a friend’s 30th birthday party, which involved going to a salsa club. I tried my best but couldn’t make it. Still I was grateful for the invitation. Next month, I will take her out for a birthday lunch.
Acknowledge That Your Friend’s Illness is Real: Sometimes, friends and family minimize the depth of our pain especially if the illness is invisible. I hear stories from readers with fibromyalgia all the time who hear, “You have a fake disease.”
Fashionably ill reader, Laura S, said, “You can’t have a healthy relationship with someone who doubts you, or gets hurt whenever your symptoms get in the way of their (and our!) wants and needs. Then second for me, personally, is for people to keep inviting us to activities, or simply keep in touch, even though we have to say no or maybe (which often leads to no) so often. I had to miss several vacations with my family because of various illnesses, and eventually my mom just stopped inviting me, and I’d hear ‘oh we’re going here/doing this’ days before they go off somewhere, without enough time for me to join in, even if I was asked…I just want to be included. I want them to ask what I CAN do, and plan something around that, instead of just doing the same kinds of things, and leaving me out.”
Have you ever reconnected with a friend?
–Your Stylist, Jessica Gimeno