Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART THREE.

*PLEASE READ PARTS ONE AND TWO BEFORE READING THIS POST :)*

I knew that if I wanted to do more than just survive, if I wanted to THRIVE, building trust and building friendships had to be an integral part of rebuilding myself and my life. However, there were more difficulties therein. How when you’re continuing to deal with chronic illness and, for want of a better expression, chronically difficult, often traumatic, circumstances, how do you make new friendships?

New person: Hello! What’s your name. What do you do?

Me: Erm, I’m heartsetonliving, I’m recovering from decades of abuse and subsequent illness 🙂 

New person: *is thrown* Oh. Er. *falls back to the usual script* Do you have family?

Me: I lost all my family due to a combination of death, abuse and abandonment. I haven’t been able to have a family of my own due to illness and a dysfunctional and damaging marriage 🙂 . 

New person: Lovely! *legs it*
I jest. That’s NOT what I say! Smiley

But I hope perhaps you get the picture. For a long time my full time occupation has been coping with the aftermath of years of abuse, managing illness and rebuilding myself and my life. What I do end up doing is skirting around my circumstances, probably coming across as awkward and evasive, perhaps even furtive and untrustworthy – which is far from the reality of who I am.

It is possible to find friends in similar circumstances to yourself as Ruby Wax has said it can be a relief to find support and empowerment from your own ‘tribe’, people who can more easily relate to you, and you to them. In a mental health setting where I was a voluntary worker in a mentoring role, I unexpectedly made a close friend who has since given me more support than I can ever remember receiving. After the ‘straw and camel’ event of late spring followed by the desperate summer, I am still alive today, able to write this, because of that friendship. There can also be complications making friends ‘in your tribe’, with others like you having more than their fair share of problems, often limiting what they can offer.

*I walked away from one long-standing friendship that had been different, one of give and take, warmth and good humour. Ten years passed. While my life stalled, that person’s life moved on in significant strides as they continued to grow and develop in a typical sort of fashion. But they seemed not to let me go entirely and as technology progressed through those years, so they would pop up with a greeting from time to time via the Internet through one medium or another. I would look the other way, trying to pretend I couldn’t see, too scared to hope. Finally I took the plunge and responded. Having recovered some health and rebuilt a good deal of myself, thanks to extensive psychotherapy, and regained some confidence; I decided this was the time to tell all.

They knew little more than that I had been low. They didn’t know that I had been living a ‘double life’ throughout our friendship, let alone anything about the devastation to my life, ongoing consequences and the fight to recover and rebuild.
That must have been some shock I delivered that day!
They didn’t know what to say … anxiety gripped me as I thought, here we go again.

We have persevered, but it’s been quite the rollercoaster ride, for both of us. We have floundered many times, and just recently I thought we were dead in the water.

It’ll be 25 years next year since we first met. I hope we’ll celebrate that.

I thought if this friendship could work out, it would give me the confidence to reignite and better engage with another long standing friend to whom I was not so close but whom I had not discarded entirely. We’ve remained in occasional contact by post or online. I know I have often backed away out of embarrassment or an inability to explain my complex circumstances. Perhaps I might introduce that friend to this blog …

My reunited friend and I used to work together seeing each other almost every day, and socialising from time to time. After three years we both moved on to different circumstances, a hundred miles or so apart. We wrote letters and met when we could. It was a friendship I cherished, not foreseeing the chasm that would eventually open up between us. These days we live more than two hundred miles apart, we sometimes email (OK, I do a lot, often in great angst or worse), sometimes we text, sometimes tweet, occasionally natter on the phone.

I can’t help but wonder how our friendship would work if my life were less of a ‘train wreck’. It’s like the proverbial elephant in the room and one around which it is extraordinarily difficult to negotiate.

My friend is not with stress or strain in their own life but has an extensive network: a close family, children, friends and work colleagues. Aside from this friend and following the death of a loved one a year ago, I have no one close to me from my life before 2010. I have no sense of connection to my history. I’ve been isolated due to illness and my circumstances. There is no doubt that I am in need of support right now, probably more so than I have ever been. But it can’t be fair to put so much onto the shoulders of this friend, can it? Immediately there’s a huge imbalance in the friendship. I’m crying out for that friend to provide support of the sort, they might more likely find from family – something I don’t have. We’ve re-established contact after ten years, and been immediately thrown into a whirlwind of intensity (admittedly by me) because my circumstances are so intense, rather than say laid-back or easygoing, or at least more everyday.

How I wish I had all the answers. I keep pressing forward trying to learn and make progress, trying not to berate myself when I think, when I see, I’m making a hash of things and I worry my socks off that my friend will decide our friendship isn’t worth the hassle I bring.

Consistency in support is so important to me right now. I don’t have roots, or solid foundations on which to depend and so feel secure as I tackle whatever life throws at me. My life has been built on quicksand. I want to know where I stand with friends, feel solidity, security from them. A more ad-hoc or casual approach is unsettling, sometimes even frightening. A regular text – even just to say hello, thinking of you, offers reassurance and a boost. A seemingly small comfort, actually offers enormous benefits. A simple set of ground rules can similarly reassure. Not knowing when next you might hear from that person or even how on earth this friendship is meant to work becomes stressful and anxiety-provoking. But my friend doesn’t need this like I do, in their more ‘normal’ life.

What if a friend doesn’t feel able to deal with that? What if naturally, in more average circumstances, the friendship would never have evolved to be that way BUT you, in your circumstances, clamour for them to meet your needs in this way – because there is no one else to do so?

Who compromises??

As someone in need, and someone who knows others in similar distress some to whom I have reached out to try to support, I want to say that the friend should be the one to compromise. It could be argued that they are more easily able to do so because they are not the one in distress. On the other hand, I find myself saying that it isn’t right to pressure or coerce anyone to do something with which they’re not comfortable.

Friendships, for all of us, take work to maintain – the level of work required can be multiplied many times in the face of illness or trauma.

I know, I’ve written an essay! Many congratulations if you made it to the end. I’m afraid there is no prize 😉 ! I’d genuinely love to hear of your experiences of managing/making/maintaining friendships in similar circumstances – whether you’re the needy or the needed 🙂 .

TTFN x

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4 thoughts on “Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART THREE.

  1. I have been thinking about friendship a lot recently too. I think we can all have experience of being ‘the needy’ and ‘the needed’. I think some people are great at keeping in touch with a wide social circle and having ‘light’ contact with friends and others are all about deeper friendships and connections. I was thinking recently that it does not have to be too personal or rejecting. When I am too intense or to much in need for someone else, then they are just attending to their needs, and it might be that we can be friends but in a lighter way or with less contact. Similarly, I have to work within my own limits and certainly recently have been accepting that I cannot be there for friends or family or my partner even in the ways that I feel i ought to be. I have been working on building a network of different kinds of support, like in my library volunteering, these kinds of online supportive networks, people I say hi to when walking the dog, peer mental health support groups and online chats, and picking up threads of longer term friendships as you describe, and often just doing light mutually beneficial stuff together like walk or tea n cake. I have certainly felt a lot of awkwardness around friends, old and new, especially while I have been more ill, but I am getting more accepting of that awkwardness. Anyway, sorry long answer, but needed to do justice to your long reflective blog 🙂

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  2. I admit I have been lucky, Good friends, many since school, so for over 50 years. A supportive family, despite long distances. They have all seen me through two divorces, and three relationship break-ups, mainly by not being judgmental, or apportioning blame, either way.
    Making sure not to judge, making sure not to blame, these are the things that separate friends from ‘contacts.’
    The fact that you are writing all this, offering it out to the world in the Internet, speaks volumes. You may well have achieved more than you realise.
    Best wishes, Pete. (The link to part 2 is not working for me, either…)

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  3. One thing stood out for me, and that’s your ‘line in the sand’ of 2010. Mine is 2001 – I have nothing and nobody prior to that in my life, no shared history, no roots. Step over the line and it’s as if I never existed.

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