Changing Health, Changing Friendships

One of the big challenges in friendships happens when we go through a transition, and a particularly difficult one is when one of us becomes ill or faces a major health change.

There are many different kinds of health related situations and challenges that can affect our friendships:
– feeling fatigue, physical or emotional pain.
– being diagnosed with a chronic physical or mental illness or a life long health issue.
– becoming disabled or experiencing changes to our mobility that require adapted equipment.
– having a cognitive or neurological impairment that we know will gradually, eventually, worsen.
– living with a disease that makes us increasingly frail and dependent on others.

We have personal beliefs, attitudes and values about being healthy, health, illness and frailty though we may not be aware of them. That is, until a health event or crisis heightens our awareness and offers new insights into our beliefs and feelings.

One famous friendship that deepened because of a health issue is beautifully depicted in Bird + Magic: A Courtship Of Rivals. The relationship between basketball champions Magic Johnson and Larry Bird changed drastically in 1991 when Magic revealed that he had received a diagnosis of HIV. This was when it was still a terminal diagnosis that carried great stigma. To his surprise and joy it was his greatest rival on court, Larry Bird, who barely spoke a word to him, that supported him most and had his back when life dealt him this unexpected diagnosis. Simultaneously, it was with great disappointment that he realized some of his closest friends, those he expected to show up, didn’t. It happens to everyone — you just never know. You don’t know who will be able to handle it and who will not.

Health events and crises are times in our life where we notice who shows up and who doesn’t, which friends can be there with us and which ones cannot. It might be a temporary thing, it might be longer, maybe permanent.

Would you keep the door open to the possibility of continuing the friendship?

I have personally dealt with the unfortunate ending of a friendship that was in part due to a chronic health issue. When I was in my 20s I felt increasingly unwell with agonizing stomach cramps and fatigue that forced me into a horizontal position. I might have looked well but I felt like crap.

When I felt okay and had energy I made plans with the best intentions to be there. The truth was that I did not know whether I’d be well enough to get there or not. I was constantly in a kind of limbo not knowing how I would feel later. A dear friend could not understand why I regularly cancelled our plans and she felt disrespected by my cancellations. I remember feeling her “shoulds” pile up on my shoulders: how I should be(have), what I should do, how I should show up. The expectations and guilt were too heavy and burdensome for me on top of my feeling unwell.

A few years later I was diagnosed with a chronic digestive condition and have worked hard to peel away layers of toxicity from my body and life. I was very sad to lose her and to lose our friendship, while at the same time, I was meeting people and making new friendships that were born from a different place than before.

We don’t know how our friends will be when we experience a health crisis or diagnosis. It is an entrance into The Unknown and it is unpredictable. Moreover, our friends don’t know how they will be. We don’t know how we’ll be with our friends’ health crisis or diagnosis either.

If a health crisis happens to your friend, if s/he is diagnosed with Alzheimers or a mood disorder, an accident occurs that requires a wheelchair, will you be there?
Will you show up?

Acknowledging and leaving space open for whatever shows up: fear, discomfort, awkwardness, silence, sadness (and whatever else) can be a growing moment in friendship. A health situation in our life can be a growing moment towards a deeper friendship.

Questions to ponder:
* What do you expect from your friends if a health crisis or event happens to you? What do your friends expect from you if they have a health crisis?
* What are your beliefs about friendship (friends) and illness?
* How can you stay open to whatever unfolds in your friendship during a health event or crisis?

“When you face a crisis, you know who your true friends are.”     ~ Magic Johnson

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