Is it possible to have meaningful friendships despite having a chronic illness, a mental illness ….?


Is it possible to have meaningful friendships despite having a chronic illness, a mental illness or a handicap?

All of a sudden, when being L’s friend required them to actually visit more regularly and offer to help out more, it resulted in the dwindling of  friendships, which was hurtful.

While so many relatives and friends stood by L, losing people she’d considered close, was a painful process. Chronic illness forced her to see her world in a different way. Her life no longer revolved around trivia. She needed a calm and positive environment while keeping stress down and managed to create a  happy lifestyle in spite of the fact that she suffered from unbearable pain sometimes. I was under the impression that she cherished people who stopped by to chat, to suggest a coffee outing, or do whatever needed doing.

This got me thinking. Why do people let friends with chronic illnesses suffer alone? Can turning one’s back on them be good for them or for you?

I admire  L’s coping strategies:

  • She stays connected, potters in her garden and writes.
  • She remains positive and even made me smile when she told me that she’d ridden at the back of a motor cycle the other day; very slowly, I hope.
  • She knows how to enjoy herself when she is not in too much pain.
  • She is the most organized person that I know. Maybe this helps provide her with a feeling of stability amongst the uncertainty and chaos of her illness

I would like to see her friends pull together and make a roster so that there could always be someone around or on call. It’s not the time to drift away. This is the time to draw closer.

R was visibly upset when she talked to me about her 20-year-old son who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She cried when she said; ‘Our friends seem to have forgotten all about us. I wonder where they are. Do they ever think of us and what an impossible time we are experiencing? R and her family feel abandoned but can do little about it due to the demands of their child’s illness, trying to grope their way through the maze of the medical system and worry about their other children who also deserve attention. They have no option but to cope alone.

Could the lack of commonly understood rituals for mental illness be the culprit? Could the persistent stress or sustained grief have something to do with it? One grieves for a very ill person even while they are alive. My husband and I noticed that people coped better with the finality of our son’s death than with his schizophrenia. While David was ill, some of the above applied, but after his death, hundreds of people attended his funeral, visited us afterwards in hordes, cooked food, baked cakes and other goodies, and if they were unable to cope with this, they sent cards.

But when loss is not final and stress is ongoing, it is a different story completely. No cards, not even a box of chocolates while David was in the hospital. No ceremony, no rules for handling the grief that keeps on popping up both for the family, supportive friends, neighbors and relatives. I know that I suffered from chronic sorrow for all those years that David battled against chronic, paranoid schizophrenia. We were not in a position to invite friends often, even though we both loved people. We had far too much to think about and to worry about. We were exhausted as we both worked and David’s calls and disturbances late at night did not allow for much rest. This is only one reason why families in trouble need support groups.

Our society teaches us to avoid unpleasant situations.  We are taught how important it is to work, make lots of money and then spend it in malls or restaurants. Many chronically ill people can no longer go to work so there is a lot less money to spend which is so unfair as they then have the added problem of making ends meet.

While attending two different support groups, we heard that there are husbands who walk out, leaving their wives to cope with mental illness in the family or leave their wives who are suffering from a chronic illness. Of course there are women  who walk out too; probably less.  This is the easy path to take but of course there are those who remain no matter what. ‘In sickness and in health,’ is an easy vow to make when both parties are young and healthy. Do they ever think of the implications for the future? Probably not.

 

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