Let’s talk about friendships… I can honestly say that friendships have made my life fuller and I have been shown so much kindness through my chronic illness journey.
I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease when I was 13 - an age notorious for friends falling out, drama and all the usual associated stress with being a teen. My friends have really shaped me into the person I am today because I spent so much of my life in hospital that I hardly ever got to just be a kid, and not think about the scary things in my life. If it wasn’t for my friends back then I don’t think I’d have been able to relate to my peers – I’d only have known how to communicate with adults!
I’m sharing my experience to discuss how my wonderful friends have supported me and to give you ideas on how to build lasting friendships.
I have many different groups of friends from childhood, school, college, friends met completely out of the blue, friends who are also chronically ill and the people who I can’t even remember how I met because we’ve been friends for so long!
I love each and every one of them for not only being there to support me when I’m upset or have been given bad news, but for making me feel like the average young person who wants to discuss Love Island or to go to pubs and clubs. I especially love them for just coming over to nap with company when I’m not feeling great, when there aren’t any words. It’s so touching, and I am always so grateful for all my friends. They also never get angry or annoyed with me when I must leave early because I need painkillers or if I get suddenly worse and have to cancel or if I end up not speaking to them for weeks at a time because I’m going through a bad patch and need to focus on recovery.
So here are my tips for how to be a good friend when you have chronic illness:
1. Don’t just decline an invitation with no reason. Offer an alternative so you can still be with your friend.
This is something that I was guilty of many times because I can’t always do active things like hillwalking (really common where I live) or dancing because I don’t have the energy to get dressed up then go out, or I can’t have alcohol… but now I always offer an alternative option, so we can still spend time together. For example, offering to have a friend over for a movie night or to go out for food rather than clubbing. It doesn’t really matter what you do as long as you’re together.
2. It means the world to be invited even if you can’t do something.
It can be hard at times to receive an invite and be unable to attend an event with your friends due to bad health. I have found that by saying thank you and explaining why I can’t go but still appreciate the invite means my friends have continued to invite me to things.
If you don’t reply to an invite or explain, your friend might not send an invite that next time. So sharing your feelings is better all round. Your friends can’t be expected to know how you feel so communication is a huge part of a friendship when chronic illness is involved.
3. Let your friends know it’s okay to ask health questions.
It’s difficult to watch a loved one suffer but by talking to friends you can help ease the shock of things. I had a feeding tube for a long time when I was younger, and because it was very prominent on my face some friends panicked and got upset. They’d never seen it before but by talking about it they relaxed - I was able to explain it didn’t hurt and was necessary to gain nutrition. My friends were soon comfortable enough to help with my feeds and it became something we bonded over – turning a not great situation into a fond memory.
4. Be there for your friend too, this isn’t only a difficult thing you’re going through, it can also be difficult for them.
I didn’t realise this until I was in hospital when my friends came to visit and they broke down crying because I looked so unwell. They felt they were wrong for crying, like they always needed to be strong around me. I now let my friends know that it’s a good thing to let their feelings out and that by both of us dropping the front, we can actually form a stronger bond.
5. Don’t assume that your friend is intentionally trying to hurt you if they say something upsetting.
We’re all human and no one is going to say the right thing all the time. You aren’t the only one who has issues in your life, your friends do too so it’s important to talk through any problems or miscommunications, so you are all on the same page.
6. Ask your friend how their life is and what’s going on with them. Talk about the challenges they face too.
Not everyone has to live with a chronic illness, but everyone has problems or things that bother them. It’s important to be there emotionally for your friend as much as they are there for you.
7. Make sure you still do things with your friend that bring you both happiness. You both deserve that.
This is the most important advice I have when it comes to friendships. It can be very easy when living with a chronic illness to only think of the bad things or discuss the sad parts, but you should still make sure that there is time dedicated to fun. This doesn’t mean you have to go out partying, it can be something as simple as going shopping together even if you need to go in a wheelchair or scooter. You can go to your favourite coffee shop. You can sing your hearts out to High School Musical songs (this might not apply to everyone but it’s what I love to do with my friends)!
Friendship is anything you want it to be and that’s what makes it so wonderful!
I really hope that this has helped some of you out, it has taken me a long time to figure out what works in making sure I maintain my friendships, but it really is worth it to have such genuine connections with other people that make you both happy. I hope you might be able to put some of this advice to good use in your own friendships!