The Multiple Sclerosis community has some great sayings that we share amongst ourselves and others. Phrases such as “You don’t get MS until you get MS”, “I have MS but MS doesn’t have me” (which, by the way, I hate), and “I’m not drunk, I have MS”. One of my favorites though, is “MS turns friends into strangers and strangers into friends”. This one seems to really tug on the heartstrings of almost anyone that has battled Multiple Sclerosis for a significant period of time. The reason for that is that so many of us have experienced it. Having MS has a tendency to cause people to lose friends that we thought were close and gain friends in places we never expected.
It’s pretty amazing that this one sentence can conjure such a mixed range of emotions in us. It is a fairly accurate description of what occurs though. Let’s talk about the negative first, friends turning into strangers. This is something that I see folks lament very often in support groups and even to me privately. A person gets diagnosed with MS and begins to experience symptoms. Many of your friends are supportive at first (and likely confused on how to deal with it), however, over time, those friendships begin to wane. Many times this happens because you can’t hang out like you once did. MS can also mean that you end up canceling plans often, likely at the last minute. Not because you want to, but because your body makes you. You start to realize you are too fatigued to hang out, or in too much pain, or the place they are going is too crowded, or it’s summer time. There are many symptoms that accompany MS that can turn ordinary situations into nightmares for us and so we choose not to go. Eventually, you start hearing from people less and less. Many times it’s not even intentional, as they say “out of sight, out of mind”. When you aren’t around much, people can start to forget you.
It’s not only our ability to hang out that can affect our friendships though. Over time, we begin to have less in common with folks. Our interests can change because we aren’t doing the same things we once did. I know I’m into some totally different stuff than I was into even before I was forced onto disability. Our bodies change and so sometimes, our interests do as well. We all have to adapt to our diseases. I used to play hockey and had a lot of friends that I met through that. My body no longer allows me to play, so it’s less of an interest for me now, so I don’t talk to as many of those friends. It’s understandable, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful. Some friends we have because of what interests us at a certain time in our life; as we change, so do those friendships. That can be true whether you have a disease or not.
Some relationships shouldn’t work out
Sometimes it’s not a change in hobbies that causes a rift, it’s that the person you thought was your friend, simply can’t or won’t try to understand what you are going through. Perhaps in their mind it’s no big deal because they once knew someone who seemed completely fine, or maybe they just can’t understand because they haven’t experienced it. Either way, if they can’t or won’t adapt, I like to think of it as a good way to weed them out. To me, some relationships shouldn’t work out. If they can’t try to understand your disease, you don’t need them in your life. By the way, all of this can apply in the dating/marriage world too.
Sometimes we push friends away ourselves. In this social media world, it’s easy to feel slighted, it’s easy to feel unwanted, and it’s easy to feel jealous because we see so much of what people are doing at every minute of the day (at least it feels that way). After a while, it can be too much. I know it’s hard for me to see some friends still playing hockey or that travel a lot. I hate to admit it, but it’s easier for me to not see that stuff, because I miss all that. Even if they aren’t rubbing it in your face, it can still feel that way. As understanding as you try to be, seeing all the stuff that you once did can be very painful and can lead to unhappiness and even depression. At least, it has for me. So sometimes a friendship ends, not because of the other person, but because it’s just easier for us (you could even say that it’s better for our health).
Trying not to dwell on it
There are a lot of reasons why friendships fail when you are living with a chronic illness. It’s important not to dwell on it. Easier said than done, I know. At the end of the day, it’s common, not only for us, but for everyone. I know plenty of folks who got married and had kids and had many former friendships dissolve. Many of these things I talked about could even apply to that same situation. Bottom line, having Multiple Sclerosis is a major life event (just as getting married and having kids is). Major life events tend to shuffle your relationships, and that’s ok.
That’s ok, because many of us tend to find new friends in places we don’t expect. MS does indeed turn strangers into friends. While social media can be tough on our former friendships, it can also make new ones blossom. When you have MS, you suddenly have something in common with a whole new group of people. People from every country, every race, every walk of life. It can be a great unifier. I’ve talked to and become friends with many people that without MS, I likely never would have spoken too. I’m extremely thankful for that. It’s literally helped me experience more of the world than I probably would have before I got sick. There are folks I’ve met up with and hung out with in person, and there are also folks in other countries that I haven’t met but talk to like I’ve known them all my life. We check up on each other, we encourage each other, we’re there for one another. Fighting MS has been a battle that’s formed a great “Band of Brothers” (ok, more sisters than brothers) for me.
Losing friends due to chronic illness is a common and sad experience. It feels like one more challenge that our disease is thrusting upon us. It many ways that’s true, but not every challenge is a bad thing in the end. We lose friends and we gain friends, which happens throughout everyone’s life, disease or not. It seems magnified for us though because it seems so out of our control. Having a chronic illness like MS requires you to learn to adapt, not only physically, but socially. So I try not to focus on the loss, I focus on adapting and meeting new friends. If you are on Facebook this month and have used the fantastic MS Awareness Month profile picture border, you’ve no doubt encountered a lot of new people with MS. Give some of them a chance, you never know which of those strangers might turn into your next best friend.