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

The Smart Art of Friendship: Great Expectations?

We all have expectations of our friends and friendships at one time or another, whether we express them or not. It has been said that: “Unexpressed expectations can be premature resentments.” We have all likely had the experience of sensing that a friend is unhappy with us and not really knowing why. This lack of knowing can be confusing and sometimes even harmful to a friendship. Expressing and being clear about your expectations, what you want or need, and what you can offer your friends is paramount to the health of your friendships.

Going through a health crisis or a major loss in our lives can magnify the impact of unexpressed expectations. We might expect a friend to be there for us when we go through a challenging time, a loss or a transition in our lives. It can be disappointing and feel quite hurtful to learn that our friend is not available or able to be there for us. One example that we can all relate to at some point is when someone experiences a health crisis or a frightening health diagnosis.

On the one hand, the person experiencing a loss or health crisis might expect their friend to:

  • listen their worst fears or worries
  • be able to understand and know exactly what to say
  • accompany them to appointments or to at least to make an offer
  • pick up food or prescriptions
  • call and check up on them

And on the other hand, the friend of the person experiencing the loss or health crisis might:

  • be fearful of intruding
  • be afraid of losing her friend
  • feel as though they should know what to do and say
  • expect their friend to be explicit about what they need
  • expect their friend to clearly ask for help

And from either perspective, a dynamic between two friends can be triggered or intensified by a health crisis or loss. This shift requires both people to work at being really clear with themselves and each other about their needs and expectations, without judgement or blaming.

While a major health crisis might magnify where expectations are not being expressed; everyday or ongoing events without clear expectations can similarly impact a friendship.

One example is how we relate to time on a daily basis and whether we prefer spontaneity, reliability, structure or flow. We might, for example, expect our friend to be okay with our being 10-15 minutes late to meet them. When in reality, punctuality is one of their most highly held values. If our friend tells us how important being on time is to them, then we have the opportunity to adjust our behavior and to be sure to be on time for that friend (even if punctuality is not one of our personal top values). But, if our friend is not clear about their expectations about time, then we are left guessing and we might not change what we are doing which could lead to further disappointment or hurt.

Tend to your friendships by clearly identifying and expressing your expectations.

Questions you might ponder or ask your friend(s):

  • Are you clear with your friends when you have expectations?
  • Do you express your expectations directly?
  • Do ask your friends to let you know what they expect of you?

Copyrighted 2013 – The Smart Art of Friendship- Ruth Tamari and Amy Greenleaf Brassert