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

Making New Friends

Have you ever met someone and felt an immediate “like” connection — that insta-click? Maybe you have experienced a sense of understanding and mutual appreciation with someone, bordering on the familiar, as if you known each other all your lives despite only just meeting.

The beauty and mystery of making new friends is that it can happen anytime and anywhere, through pure chance or planned intention.

Why is it important to make new friends?

Friends make our lives richer: they laugh with us, they bring lightness and joy to our lives, they listen to our stories and stresses, and they spend time doing fun things with us. Friends know us personally and can be our advocates and power of attorney when we are ill.

Sometimes we do lose friends as we move through life transitions — relationships, health, career and residential — so it is important to continue to make new friends throughout our lives.

Friendship takes time and effort. First, to meet new people, then to get to know each other, see if you have enough in common and if each person wants to continue to create the friendship and finally, to build and deepen it. Establishing strong friendships, moving from being acquaintances to new friends to good friends, takes time – months and even years.

“The best time to make new friends is before we need them.” ~ Ethel Barrymore

What do you need to make new friends?

The act of making new friends requires different ingredients. Here are a few possibilities for what we need to make new friends:

  • openness on both people’s parts,
  • common values, interests, and/or humour,
  • cultivating interesting and engaging conversations,
  • taking action like getting together outside of school, work or whatever brought us together,
  • continuity and reciprocity, inviting each other out or over,
  • courage and vulnerability, a willingness to make it known that you want to be friends with this person,
  • strength and flexibility, moving through life together, through the good times and the bad times, and knowing that we will show up for each other and be understanding towards one another.

So where do we make new friends?

Becoming friends certainly seems easier when we are young and attending school with 30 other kids five days a week, or when we spend many hours daily at our workplace working together with colleagues.

Regardless of age, making new friends takes courage: to get out in the world, to put ourselves out there, and to take emotional risks. Social media and technology can be great ways to connect with people and initiate new acquaintanceships. Trying new experiences, going to new places, being open to learning about a meaningful subject matter are all opportunities to meet new people. And not unlike dating, making a new friend requires that we be vulnerable to the possibility that our attempt at kindling a new friendship can result in rejection, hurt, or disappointment.

“There are no strangers here; Only friends you have not yet met.” ~ William Butler Yeats

Six steps to making new friends:

  1. Step into a positive mindset – one that is open-hearted, open minded, friendly, warm, kind, humourous, good-natured.
  2. Step away from negative self-talk – about how hard it is or why it is not worth the time to bother meeting new people and making friends.
  3. Step out there – go to (new) places or events where you can chat with people, do things with others, or create something with other people.
  4. Step into conversations about issues or topics that are meaningful, fun or important to you, e.g. human trafficking, politics, yoga, StarTrek, the latest gadgets, race horses, etc.
  5. Step up the invitations – invite a new or an old acquaintance to join you for an event or activity.
  6. Step into vulnerability when you feel ready and share something personal about yourself — about your family, your childhood, your history, your background.

Are there any other steps you might add to the process?

“You can make more friends in two months by becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” ~ Dale Carnegie

Questions to ponder:
When was the last time you made a new friend? How did it happen? What did you do to make it happen?
When do you consider someone or call someone your friend?
What are some ways you can make new friends?
What attitude or perspective is helpful for you to make new friends?
What information about yourself are you comfortable to share at the beginning of a friendship?