Small comfort(s) – friendship in the face of trauma and illness – PART TWO (first lost then rewritten!).

*PLEASE READ PART ONE BEFORE READING THIS PART :)*

I had a close group of friends from university, and others from different areas of my life. I tended to be the linchpin of the university group, the organiser, the one who brought us together. We each went off in different directions after graduating but would congregate at my home. They were like a second family to me, but my disclosure of abuse and mental breakdown was not well received.

There were mutterings about how abuse only happens in ‘terrible families’ and that seemed to lead to the conclusion that I must be terrible by association and so was best avoided. Some shared their disbelief with me that someone they considered to be so strong, bright and capable, could be so weak as to have depression. At one point I was told to get down on my knees and beg God for forgiveness for my terrible sins (after my attempted suicide). Some of these reactions were repeated as more friends became aware of my circumstances.

Illness, of any chronic or acute kind, can be isolating when it leaves a person unable to live as they once could. Mobility and energy may be compromised, together with many other aspects of normal life. They may become housebound or even bed bound. Friendships are tested, strained, and may even break down. People are often unsure what to say or do in these circumstances. They will often back away, for fear of doing the wrong thing and contact can ultimately be lost. Others are just not good around illness, while others are fair weather friends – around for the good, but not for the less so. For a decade my life revolved around healthcare appointments, depression and panic attacks, psychotherapy, pain, and my loo – thanks to a debilitating, progressive, and during that period, untreated, digestive disorder. The condition led to my becoming agoraphobic for a lengthy period, and further isolated.

*Over time I cut myself off from the very few friends that remained, for fear of having to face more rejection or misunderstanding and stigmatising judgements that, ill and traumatised as I was, I didn’t have the strength to challenge.

I came to realise that I had never been particularly discerning where friendships were concerned. Devoid of self-esteem, because of the abuse I’d experienced, I took all comers. I’d grown up without my needs being met, brainwashed into believing my purpose was to serve the needs of others. Anyone who wanted me to be a friend, got me, I didn’t stop to consider whether or not this friendship was right for me –  it’s perhaps no surprise that these friendships broke down in (my) extremis.

New people came and went over the years. Isolated and desperate and so ever less discerning, I leapt into a number of unsuitable friendships, often made via the Internet – one of few means of contact with the outside world.

Finally, after all these experiences and additionally the challenges of a very unhealthy marriage, I came to a point where I could no longer imagine trusting anyone ever again.

I decided I couldn’t go on like that.

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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

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

Stick your hand in the air if, by virtue of being a survivor of abuse or someone who lives with chronic mental or physical illness – or any combination of those, you’ve had struggles with friendships.

I know I have. Oh boy, have I … Any friend of mine reading this, and there are precious few these days for reasons which should become apparent, will concur!

 putyourhandup

What about being a friend to someone who falls into one or more of those categories? Stick your hand in the air and wave it about if that’s you. How is it for you??
Have you stuck by a friend through thick and thin? put_your_hands_up_in_the_air_by_varganorbert-d32d7em
Have you struggled to know what to say or how to deal with a friend’s circumstances? Have you found it easier to distance yourself, although you might feel guilty about doing it?

I am, to use a cliche, a ‘people person.’ I can be shy but I can also be ‘Tigger’ . I am sociable and very interested in others. I’m warm, friendly, caring … and witty(or so I like to think!). So what’s going wrong, why do I have so few friends now and almost no one I can count on?

Disclosing experiences of abuse is difficult for a multitude of reasons. I began doing it in my thirties, at a time when I had many established friendships. It didn’t happen earlier because until then I didn’t know that what I had experienced, was continuing to experience, was abuse, and I was caught up in the machinations of life with abusers and stuck behind the wall of silence so often installed by those who abuse.

I remember so clearly. A locum GP had finally asked the right questions and discovered my real circumstances, not only those my brave front portrayed. She referred me to a counsellor, who told me so carefully and with such compassion …
‘This is abuse … you don’t have to live like this.’
I was assailed by a plethora of thoughts and feelings – everything from pain to confusion, fear to disbelief. I was clear on one thing. It was better this was out in the open, people would rally, I would be supported and loved through this.

It didn’t quite work out that way.