When I first developed CRPS and started interacting with the online chronic pain community, I remember one warning that was broadcast repeatedly from many patients who had been playing this pain game longer than me: “You’ll find out who your real friends are”.
This seemed like a rather strange prediction. Would my friends not like me any more because I am sore? Because I can’t do all the things that I used to? Because I was suddenly about to sprout three heads that would incessantly mock everybody in singsong harmonies?
What’s a “real” friend anyway? At the time, I hadn’t yet developed relationships with any personalities that I’d imagined and projected onto inanimate objects. Sure, friendships exist in different degrees, but I wouldn’t have labelled any of mine as “fake”. I mean, I wasn’t in high school, I think that the days of tribes of girls wanting to befriend me for my gorgeousness and popularity were already behind me.*
And so, I journeyed forward through my chronic pain, preparing myself for the revelation of who my real friends were. I kind of just hoped that when they appeared under their halos, I would actually like them too. Obviously, I didn’t want to be friends with no losers. Or, you know, boring people.
Nothing changed for a long time. My CRPS progressed, my incapacitation increased and I was forced to start wading in the murky waters of mental coping. I kept an eye on them, but none of my friends vanished unexpectedly. Of course, that doesn’t mean that some friends didn’t flow out of my life on the currents of change.
Transient friendships always end that way. They were never meant to last forever.
Friendships are formed through situations, interests, or any sort of activity that groups people together. Eventually, people get new jobs, or they move away, or they get interested in new things. Often when circumstances change, friends drift apart and float away into the next chapters of their lives. These endings don’t mean that the friendships weren’t real, they’re just a part of life in a world that’s always changing.
The ending of a transient friendship can feel confusing if one friend is moving on and the other is stuck in place by illness. Shifting from living a regular life to a painfully restricted one is a tough adjustment. It can seem like the whole world is just passing by and feeling left behind can hurt like a bitch.
It’s not just transient friendships that change. Friendships that span years and lifetimes are also changing along the way. Those deeper friendships exist because the friends have the ability to ride the changes together, to adapt to one another, to accept each other as growing, living beings. Old friends often find themselves distanced from one another and then really close and then distanced a little again. That’s how life goes. It can just be hard to see this when it feels like all of the good things happen to the friend that isn’t you.
Navigating our own minds can be difficult. Sometimes, feelings are really big and it’s not always obvious why we’re feeling them. It can be easier to blame that friend that never visits for the fact that we feel lonely and sad, rather than accepting that the sadness is coming from how we are coping with our personal situation.
Sometimes, sadness just needs to run its course, it’s no one’s fault.
There are some friends that I kept in touch with for a while after developing CRPS, until our lives took us further apart. There are some friends that I simply never saw again. There are some friends that I catch up with rarely and there are some friends that I’ve remained close with. There are even a few new friends.
At some point during the years that I have been learning to cope with CRPS, I have felt betrayed by each and every one of them. You see, there are a lot of things about chronic pain that can make a person angry and anger is always looking for someone to blame.
When I felt isolated and cut off, I often felt angry at people for not visiting rather than angry at the disease for keeping me locked up. I felt angry that nobody was showing up to make me feel better. I felt like their absence meant that none of my friends really cared about me, or cared that I was hurting. I felt like nobody even wanted to understand me or what I was going through.
I felt a lot of things that weren’t fair on anybody.
I cried and I cried and I cried…
It took me a long time to figure out that there wasn’t a bad guy. I felt so alone and I was stuck at home, surely the onus was on my friends to come to me? Maybe in a sitcom world, but not so much in this one.
Because people have lives. People are busy and imperfect and are usually trying their best at life. Sometimes, people are overwhelmed when confronted by illness, or confused about what to say. Sometimes people stay home because they feel anxious or insecure. Most people have a whole lot of things going on that have absolutely nothing to do with the friends that they care about.
And friends are people.
Eventually, I became aware that I was spending a lot of time hating the people that I love for no valid reason at all. Nothing that has happened to me in terms of my illness has been their fault and maintaining my happiness is not their responsibility. I have different sorts of friendships with different people and it’s OK that they aren’t all the “bring roses to your sickbed” type of friendships. I mean, too many of those would make them a little bit less special now, wouldn’t it?
I had to let go of needing other people to make me happy. I had to let go of wanting to be needed. I had to let go of craving approval, or inclusion, or whatever it was that I thought my friends should be providing for me. I had a lot of forced quiet time last year and once I was done raging about it, I used that time to observe my thoughts and disregard any that were not helping me to be a happier person.
I decided to remove the obligation from what I understood friendship to be. I stopped paying attention to angry thoughts about other people and acknowledged that if I felt angry, it was coming from within. I refused to be annoyed at people for literally doing nothing. It was never their fault that I thought they should be doing something. I mean, what sort of queen did I think I was?
I stopped creating expectations for friends that they were unaware of and focused on enjoying whatever aspects of a friendship were available to me.
Life got a whole lot more enjoyable after that.
Now, when I feel upset, it’s easier to figure out what I’m really upset about without a bunch of blame and anger blocking my view.
It’s easier to spend a lot of time alone, now that I’m not blaming anybody for it. In fact, I think I quite enjoy having plenty of time to look after myself and reflect on things. It’s easier for me to recognise the friendships that were only ever going to be transient, whether my illness had happened or not. It’s also easier to recognise that all of the anger and hatred directed at my friends was only ever happening inside my head. It was only ever hurting me.
Most delightfully, it’s easier to appreciate my friends, all of them. The long-lasting ones and the short-termers. The share-everything-with ones and the casual-joke-partners. The see-regularly ones and the only-catch-up-with-occasionally ones.
I guess that CRPS has taught me who my “real” friends are, just not in the way that the warnings implied. All of my friends are real, there aren’t any mannequins in my contacts (sadly). Some of the friendships run deep and others barely scratch the surface and that’s OK. Some friends are utterly amazing at cheering me up when I’m down and others aren’t and that’s OK too.
Some days I’ll get overwhelmed and angry and have to remind myself about these important realisations about friendship all over again. And that’s OK too.
I guess the whole point is that nobody’s perfect.
Love & Fluttering Cheek Kisses,
*Might never have happened.