Making Friends and Cultivating Lasting Relationships while living with a Chronic Illness

Humans are social creatures, or, at least, that’s what the experts tell us. We crave friendship and seek out companionship and when we don’t get enough of those things, we become socially awkward and eventually end up maladjusted if the isolation goes on for too long. This is especially true for those of us who suffer from chronic illness, as we need help from others more often than most. Unfortunately, having an all-consuming ailment like Rheumatoid Arthritis tends to make one want to be alone more often than not, and fighting that urge is a constant battle.

I recently reconnected with some old friends of mine who I have known for over twenty years. I originally met most of them while I was still in high school, and their recent re-appearance has reminded me of the trials and tribulations that come with socializing while under the thumb of chronic disease. It is no walk in the park, mind you, and I’ve learned the hard way that you have to give as much as you get.

As surprising as this may be to many of you, I was not born with an innate ability to be open, make friends and form relationships with people. It did not matter, though, since most of us are not born with that particular skill set. Usually we learn from watching others and from trial and error. When you are young, you can get away with much more than you can when you are an adult, so you try different things – keeping secrets and gossiping, badmouthing a fellow student, or telling that popular girl you like her — they all result in different outcomes, both good and bad. Fortunately, the consequences for messing up are substantially less harsh when you are young. Getting excluded from a birthday party seems like an epic tragedy when you are twelve years old, but it is nothing compared to losing a client when you are thirty because they simply didn’t like you. This is why it is so important for this process to be able to run its course, and it sometimes takes 25 years for some of us to find out whom we truly are.

In my case, I was thrown a curve ball at the tender age of ten when I was diagnosed with juvenile idiopathic arthritis, JIA (known then as juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, JRA). After that point, I not only had to navigate the choppy social waters of Middle School, but I had to do it with one hand tied behind my back, so to speak.

What was I to do? I had to absorb as much knowledge about making friends as I could while simultaneously fighting a crippling illness. At that time, though, I had not even been definitively diagnosed yet, so I was not even able to tell others what it was I was suffering from or what the illness might do to me. This made it difficult to form lasting friendships when I couldn’t even answer the first question most people had – “What’s wrong with you?”

So, as you can see, the normal process of learning how to interact with others was interrupted in my case. This left me ill-equipped to handle close friendships when high school began, and I almost lost all the friends I did have because of it.

Even though I attended private school for the last three years of my high school career, I did go to the local public school for ninth grade. At that time, I did have a group of boys and girls that I ran around with, but I certainly did not have any idea how to treat those friends properly. I was much more concerned with making friends with upperclassmen, and due to my being a member of the school band, I was afforded the opportunity to do so. So, for weeks I tried my best to become the only freshmen that hung out with all older kids, completely forgetting about the kids who were the same age as me. It all came to a head one day when I found myself with no one to talk to at all – the older kids didn’t want me around, and the kids my age wouldn’t have me.

That was the weekend I learned that humility and loyalty were both qualities that many people looked for in a friend. I also figured out that I still had a lot to learn, and that I was behind the eight ball when it came to socializing. My disease had been such an all-consuming concern for the past five or six years that I had literally forgotten to cultivate friendships other than the ones that required little to no work. It was a very harsh lesson to learn, and you would think that I would never let it happen again, but stupid me, I did it twice more.

Fast forward to this year, 2012 as I said I have recently re-connected with friends of mine who I have seen, on and off, since my junior year of high school. These friends were the ones I enjoyed the capriciousness of youth with, and we have shared many experiences that I will never forget to this day. What I also did was drop off the face of the Earth more than once, and simply disappeared from the group, sometimes for years at a clip. Not surprisingly, it always began with a downturn in my health.

Many chronically ill individuals have a tendency to pull down the shades and curl up into a ball, shutting all others out, when our illnesses begin to act up. For a number of reasons, we simply do not enjoy sharing our pain and suffering with others. Not wanting to seem like a crybaby, not wanting to burden others with our problems, not wanting to scare people off – any one of these reasons could be the culprit, but in the end it doesn’t matter, the result is the same. We push away those who are closest to us. I am here to beg you all not to do this.

If the fact that I have reconnected with my friends recently teaches me nothing else, it tells me that I chose my friends well, and that they all truly love to spend time with me. In fact, they have known me for so long, it seems they did not even take offense to the fact that I disappeared, once again, for a few years. Even so, I still feel terribly embarrassed and ashamed for not trusting these people with whom I have shared so much to be able to handle my disease and all that comes with it. They have earned the right after so many years to be able to make the decision to stay or go for themselves, and this time, I won’t make the same mistake again. I an truly sorry for my behavior, and if you do nothing else, take my experience as a cautionary tale and when you find friends who you can share your illness with, trust in them to handle that illness as true friends would.

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