A group of people look up into an online forum where a door has opened. A person is standing in the doorway waving at them, and the light from the doorway is shining on the group standing together.

I Get by With a Little Help From My Friends

International Friendship Day has fallen at the end of July for over 60 years. It always coincides with the week following an annual writers conference I attend. At that event, I see friends who’ve sustained and supported me as a writer since 2005.

This year, that event, like many, was canceled by the pandemic.

(Well, it happened virtually, but I didn’t attend.)

Listen, the conference offers compelling workshops, live readings, and lectures. Yet, what I take away from this time isn’t intellectual. It’s intangible: bits and pieces of other people — their ideas, failures, celebrations, tragedies, and passions — shared so fearlessly I don’t know how they hold themselves together following such generosity.

Vulnerability in friendships

Usually, International Friendship Day occurs after I’ve had a few days to count all the pieces of relationship gold mined from a place where vulnerability and creativity often mean the same thing.

This year, I’m especially aware that many of these friends have also been steadfast companions on my journey with MS.

When friends aren’t supportive

We’ve all experienced this: you share your diagnosis of MS with people you thought were friends only to watch them recede from your life.

It looks something like this—they:

  • Judge you as a hypochondriac or attention seeker
  • Disbelieve you — the old “but you look fine!” motif
  • Treat you as if you’re incapable of anything, often speaking for you right in front of you, as if you’re not there
  • Seem to think you’re no longer the same person

This may be true; I think it’s impossible to go back to the Old Normal following an MS diagnosis.

But while you’re laden with symptoms, the disease’s unpredictable nature, and any limits it places on you even as you “power through,” those friends find less time or energy for you.

All of these things happen within families, too, sadly.

It’s more than a lack of awareness

People don’t generally understand MS. “You don’t get it until you get it,” as the saying goes.

Heck, I had two good friends with MS and still didn’t “get” it until my diagnosis!

But friends… should be friends no matter what, right?

The struggle to maintain old friendships in the New Normal is real. I remember truly feeling abandoned within the year post-diagnosis, wondering who my friends really were.

But one day I realized I’d gained new friends even as the old friends have faded from sight.

On doors closing and opening

I’ve believed this for a long time: when one door closes, another opens.

Today, I even use this adage to describe living with MS.

Maybe I didn’t believe this immediately following diagnosis: in fact, I’m sure I felt like many doors closed in my face (and on my fingers!).

As with anyone going through the stages of grief, I can admit to going through that awful “why me?” stage.

But time can smooth over bumps and heal wounds. When I finally looked up from mine, I noticed new opportunities — and new friends — had replaced the ones I’d lost.

Common ground is everything

Being a writer and having MS are dual realities with shared challenges. Both need:

  • A support system
  • Peers who tackle this wilderness daily
  • Safe spaces to air frustrations or shout out in triumph over hurdles overcome

One post-conference day in July 2017, I realized that someone I cared a great deal about had essentially ghosted me.

But then, in the middle of mourning that loss — wondering, “What did I do? Why would she blow me off?” — another friend popped into my Facebook feed, one I’d met at the conference.

I realized, wow, here’s someone who loves me just the way I am. We’d constructed a jigsaw puzzle together and celebrated her birthday just a week prior. I already missed her. Here she was, on Facebook, like we’d been friends forever.

I count these blessings every day now.

Say what you will about social media

I cannot extol the virtues of social media without first pointing out its double-edged stabbiness. Social media indeed brings out both the best and worst in all of us (including myself!).

But thank goodness for it. On bad MS days, so many friends I’ve made in the days post-diagnosis — the ones who don’t mind that I’m sick, who don’t let it define me — really show up.

How my friends show up for me

What does that friendship look like? Support emojis, inspiring memes, pet pics, funny GIFs, and private messages. Without a moment’s hesitation.

Happy International Friendship Day to those long-time friends who’ve stuck it out in that transition between the Old and New Normal (yes, they do exist!) and to those newfound friends who bring unsolicited joy even in a pandemic. I strive daily to return these favors in kind, even if only virtually.

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