I had a whole life before I got sick. I had jobs and relationships and friends. And a temper and a bad attitude and a desire to always be right. I was a complete person, with personality traits like everyone else.
This hasn’t changed since I got sick, but I find that people tend to focus less on this. They see me through the lens of my disease and they attribute all of my actions to the sickness. It has surprising consequences. The one that is most obvious is how strongly people in my life react when they perceive that I have been treated unfairly. It feels more wrong to them that these things happened to me than if they happened to them. The amount of anger they emote is sometime disproportionate to the offense, and even when they realize this, they cannot always control their response. Feelings are complicated in that way.
I find that they get the angriest about people who end their relationships with me. In some ways, they feel the loss of this support as keenly as I do. They love me. They want to limit my suffering.
It is hard to be friends with someone who is chronically ill. It can be time consuming and tiring. It takes a lot of physical and emotional energy to support someone like me. I’m sure it’s not always pleasant to drive me around after you’ve been working all day. It’s also hard when you’re not able to get the favor paid back in kind – I am certainly in no position to come vacuum your floor, at least not anytime soon. But more than these mundane things, being around the chronically ill reinforces our own fears about mortality, about the frailty of the human body. It reminds us that we could all get sick and lose the things and people we care about.
We, the chronically ill, are afraid to lose the people we love because, statistically, we will. Our partners will leave us, we will lose close friendships. The stress of these events makes us sicker, but it is the emptiness, the guilt that we feel that is harder to cope with. It’s hard to convince yourself that you’re not ruining everyone’s life when people you love and trust tell you that you are.
I think a lot lately about the people who have cut ties with me. It is sort of comforting to think that maybe it was because of my personality, because we just grew apart, but when I really dissect these situations, that is never what happened. These people didn’t want to deal with me being sick. Some started behaving callously, ignoring me when I was upset; others stopped returning my calls; others just outright got mad at me. It’s easier to be mad at someone than stay with them while they deteriorate. This isn’t for the faint of heart.
There is this recent concept in the American consciousness that you should never have to do anything that you find upsetting, that feeling anything bad is not your responsibility. This is bullshit. Sometimes you have to do things that are hard emotionally because they are the right thing to do. You can’t just abandon people because it makes your life easier. I’m not advocating total sacrifice here – self care is important. But there is a balance to be struck in these situations, and I know there is because many in my life have done so. The difference between them and those who leave is how important I am to them. If I’m not worth the pain, it’s an easy choice.
You do not have to continue to be my friend because I am sick. You do not have to continue to be my friend at all, if you don’t like me. Someone said to me not so long ago, “I’m not a bad person because I can’t deal with your sickness.” It doesn’t make you a bad person.
But it does make you a bad friend, and I’m tired of pretending that’s not the case. Be honest with yourself about your motivations. We know when it’s about us as people and when it’s about our disease. If you don’t want to be my friend anymore because I made out with your boyfriend and get embarrassingly drunk at your parties, that’s fine. If you don’t want to be my friend anymore because I’m sick, that’s wrong. This disease picked me. It’s not a behavior or life choice that I made. It is something that happened to me that I can’t control.
It’s not fair to lose the people you love because you got sick. And I’m tired of letting it happen gracefully. The truth is that if you end your relationship with someone because of their disease, you are a coward.
I suppose things work out the way they’re supposed to, though. Goddess knows I don’t have room for cowards in my life right now.