25 February 2011 ~ 12 Comments

Good Friends are Like Diamonds, Precious But Rare

I’ve been thinking about friends a lot lately and pondering how my illness has changed the way I think about them. From the time that I went to university in Bath, I was a social butterfly and enjoyed meeting new people all the time. I couldn’t stand to be alone and in hindsight I know this is a fear shared by many. I would meet with whomever whenever. These days, things are different. As I got older, I realised that quality was more important than quantity. Some of my old friendships suddenly seemed unfulfilling and I learned to be alone and to enjoy my own company, one of the hardest lessons to learn, I think. I remember how in my 20s a friend told me how she couldn’t stand for her fiancé to be away for one single night. I think that’s crazy and I still do. I guess I got used to Corey being away pretty damn fast because the first few years of our relationship were filled with him going on business trips to the US, Thailand, Brazil, China, Japan and many other places. This might seem an enviable task, but in fact it truly burnt him out and could also have sped up his manifestation of thyroid disease, caused by the severe worsening of his immune system. Frequent plane travel can do that to you.

Either way, I guess what I’m saying is that my fiancé is also my best friend, which is why I am talking about him in this context. As Sting so aptly sings, if you love somebody set them free and that’s why I find it hugely important to give Corey the space he needs to meet with his own friends and pursue his own activities. On the subject of couples, recently our friend Lauren told me that we are one of the few unselfish couples she knows. She wasn’t saying that all couples are selfish – not by a long shot – but rather that many couples tend to retreat into themselves and spend all their time together, forgetting about their true friends who are disappointedly waiting to spend time with them. Please don’t think I am pointing the finger. This is merely an observation and I must admit that we have indeed lost many friends this way. It’s tough to be friends with some people with families too because after a while it just feels like they don’t even have the time for a single phone call or email and no matter how busy I am I still try and contact my friends at least occasionally, but in such cases these people seem to disappear off the face of the earth.

What illness has done for me is cut down my tolerance for bullshit because it acts as a wake-up call and makes you realise who truly is there for you in your hour of need. You can’t expect everybody to understand, but they can try to be there in their own way. When I was single, perhaps I felt more of a need to spend my time with others, although sometimes weeks passed where it felt like I hadn’t seen a single soul and hadn’t spoken a word of English. Those were dark times as it sometimes felt that there was hardly anybody who understood the real me and I know that one of my criteria for a true friend (and this hasn’t even always been the way with past partners of mine) is for them to accept me for who I am. Sadly, Corey was the first partner who didn’t want to change everything about me. Other partners were super-critical, yet failed to look at their own faults.

When I was at my worst, I spent most of my days in bed, unable to muster the energy to get up and even make myself a sandwich and going to the supermarket seemed like a huge ordeal too. German supermarkets aren’t always the most convenient of places. I didn’t want to be a burden on my friends and I didn’t feel like seeing any of them because I was sick and tired and depressed and trying to coming to terms with a  new diagnosis, which had struck me down and which would accompany me for the rest of my life. For that reason, I didn’t see many of them for months and months. I think this is a perfectly normal thing. I am sure that you have heard the saying that you have to like yourself in order for others to like you. I didn’t like the new me – people might accuse me of being lazy for spending all that time in bed and yet lazy is something I have never been, which I am sure anyone who has ever known me well enough will attest to. I guess part of the problem is empathy. We fear that others won’t understand or want to know what we are going through unless they have been through it themselves. And in many cases we are unfortunately correct.

My sister-in-law suffers from fibromyalgia, CFS and thyroid disease (which was only recently diagnosed). She was always insanely tired and achy and my mother-in-law at the time, who has since passed away, thought she was putting on her illness and that it was all a pretence. Her husband felt pressured by his mother and I think he was kind of caught in the middle. This was a few years before I was diagnosed, but my heart broke for Heide to see her tired and in pain and watch as Gayle would put her down and criticise her for being this way. She needed to know that she was okay and that somebody loved her, so I did my best to tell her that. She returned the favour when I got diagnosed because we were able to empathise with each other and the more I read the more I realised that her fibro and CFS may well be connected to an underactive thyroid, so we fought together to finally get her that oh so elusive diagnosis.

Illness makes you change your priorities when it comes to friends. When you are tired and not always able to enjoy the quality of life you might like, you want to enjoy your good days with those who love and understand you and care for you as you are. I’ve come across judgemental friends who’ve commented on my weight or those who would visit my house (pre-Corey) and bitch that I hadn’t managed to tidy up. At the time, I had an insanely busy career where I would sometimes literally work night and day – same thing as I’m doing now, but now it just happens to have calmed down somewhat. I tried and tried to see the best in such friends, but sometimes you just can’t look past or forgive their lack of acceptance. When it comes down to it, I don’t want friends who make fun of my weight or criticise me needlessly. I want friends who I want to be there for and who want to be there for me.

And that’s where I get on to the next topic of being there for people. In the past few years, friends have come and gone in my life and in Corey’s. I truly do my best to be the best friend I can be and put in the effort to be there for people, but sometimes that isn’t reciprocated and I end up feeling taken for granted and used. It’s a hurtful experience, but you have to know when to pull the plug on a friendship and stop trying so hard. Otherwise, it has been my personal experience that you may end up feeling burnt out. There comes a time when you feel sick of making compromises or being the one to initiate all the social gatherings. I’ve always disliked the classic phrase of “oh, I haven’t heard from you in a long time” because it’s all too often uttered by those whose turn it was to contact you, especially when you’ve been the one who seems to have put in all the effort to maintain the friendship. It breaks my heart at times because I’ve had friends who I’ve been really close to who just seem to have disappeared from my life. They no longer had time for me and didn’t seem to want to make the effort to make time. Of course, with some people we never do truly know why they act the way they do, but it hurts to give up on someone or maybe it’s just a case of having no expectations anymore. I miss some of these good friends. It was great while it lasted and they accompanied me through part of my life. I like to think I was lucky to know them and be with them and tell myself that new friends will come and fill my life with joy. I hope to do the same for them.

These days, it’s insanely difficult to meet friends and as an expat it’s even more difficult. You’re stuck in what is sometimes an unfamiliar culture and sometimes your only way to meet people is through cityzines, of which there are quite a few here in Germany. That said, you have to run the gauntlet of guys who claim they want to be your friend, but in reality want so much more, even though you specifically said in your contacts with them that you were only looking for people to hang out with. Don’t even get me started on e-dating – I’ve been there and done that too!

The other problem is finding someone who is on the same wavelength as yourself. That was rarely the case for me when I tried to meet people on the Internet (there’s a German website called new-in-town.com) or through cityzines. I met my best friend at the time through new-in-town.com, but he’s also one of the people with whom I seem to have practically lost touch. I feel like we are still faintly connected by a silken thread and that one day we may be friends again, but unfortunately Corey and I got the distinct feeling that his husband wasn’t awfully keen on us. That naturally makes things difficult with any friendship.

As I said above, illness makes you reassess your priorities. You may at first feel lonely and abandoned and as if nobody cares, but remember that that is not the case. I have found that in my darkest hours it has often been those who are in the same boat as myself who have given me the greatest support – as you already know, there are some wonderful thyroid and chronic illness communities on the web. It’s as if you are automatically speaking the same language, no matter where you are from. When you both have something in common – in this case a chronic illness – a friendship often blooms so naturally.

The same applies to being an expat, as I mentioned above. I’d like to say that as somebody who studied German and has at times even been mistaken for a German when I speak the language that I have a ton of German friends and am totally assimilated in the German culture. I would say that thanks to my German ex-boyfriends I do know a ton about German culture and yet most of our friends are still other expats. Somehow it seems as if our common situation binds us together when we feel so lost and alone in this foreign land.

I think my friends Anita Roberts, Cynthia Ortega and Wendy Holmes Curtis would agree – Anita lived in Hong Kong for a time, Cynthia in Japan and Wendy lives in Austria. It can be more than tough at times when the locals don’t always accept foreigners and trying to find friends who get it seems an impossible challenge. Since we’ve moved to Düsseldorf, things have been immeasurably easier because D’dorf is one of the German cities that is much more international. Hence, you don’t feel like you stick out like a sore thumb or a “brightly coloured dog” (bunter Hund) as the Germans say. It’s easier to meet other expats and many Germans who live here are perhaps more well-travelled and more accustomed to different cultures.

I want to finish here by saying that it’s important to realise that you deserve to get back as much as you give. If you feel like a friend isn’t putting in the same effort as you, consider taking a step back and decreasing the effort you are putting into your friendship. Don’t be afraid to give new people a chance because sometimes you will be pleasantly surprised – I didn’t actually like Corey when we first met, but now I know I made the right decision. The same goes for friends as it does for lovers. Value yourself and your time on this earth. Surround yourself with those who love and care about you as you love and care about them. Don’t feel you have to settle for less because it may just leave you feeling unfulfilled. Last but not least, thank you so much to all my online and other friends for being there for me when I needed you the most. When someone is there for me and gives of their time for me, I will never take it for granted and I like to think of it as a very special gift.

I look forward to your comments and feedback on this topic. From a recent status I posted on Facebook, I know that many of you can identify with this.

12 Responses to “Good Friends are Like Diamonds, Precious But Rare”

  1. Michelle 26 February 2011 at 12:42 am Permalink

    I can tell you… not only illness changes. If you were part of a “club” (a choir, a dance crew, etc.) and you are not a member anymore, you also lose a lot of contact with these people because they tend to hang together, celebrate together, do things together, etc. and once you’re not part of it, you’re not even remembered as part of it anymore. Sad, but true.

    Also when you lose weight. You get all kind of names and people saying “now we are your fat uncool friends”, when truth is, I invited them often enough to do what I did (Zumba) and none of them ever wanted, not even to come to the activities/shows to SEE only.

    Now I have a group of friends who share my hobby and I do a lot of things with them. I still search for contact with the others, but I feel that I’m not welcome. Phone calls not returned, when I drop by it’s never a good moment, nobody ever remembers when we made a date for coffee or so… and honestly, I don’t want to run behind people. If I am your friend, I may not call you every week, not even every month; but I’m always pending of everything and I write often. Now thanks to Facebook I can keep a lot more contact with people, since I love to answer on their status, then we message sometimes back and forth due to X subject… and it feels good.

    It’s not the same than face to face, even living in the same town, not far apart from each other (my neighbor from across the street, we comment more on each other’s status than what we meet, lately)… but it’s contact.

    Anyway… I’m extending myself a lot.

    People tend to change… and one day I read a chain e-mail who said something I keep in mind all the time:

    “People come to your life for a SEASON, for a REASON or for a LIFETIME.”

    Hugs and GREAT article!

    • Sarah Downing 26 February 2011 at 1:59 am Permalink

      Hey Michelle,

      I knew very well when writing this article that it would apply to so many people. I have been wanting to write it for a long time, but it has been so painful to put pen to paper. This afternoon, however, it all came flowing out and I wrote it in about half an hour – some of the best articles are written spontaneously like that.

      I’m so sorry that you’ve been through everything you have and are still going through. I hate cliques – they can be so exclusive and I have myself been a victim of this when I was at school. I was quite the outcast and will never forget how that felt not to be accepted by the others no matter what I did.

      I also know that people can be very cruel about things like weight gain or weight loss. I’ve been called fat often enough or picked on because of my weight, though looking at my pics you wouldn’t think I had the much of a problem. Some eagle-eyed arseholes however always notice the slightest fluctuation in your weight and use that to bring you down. Part of it is jealousy and part of it is insecurity. Whether you are underweight or overweight or even just normal weight, some people will always go out of their way to criticise you in order to make themselves feel better and hide their insecurities. Pity these people for not accepting you as the lovely person that you are! Because you are a lovely person and you mustn’t allow them to bring you down. They are not worth it! And by the way, congratulations for losing weight with all that zumba! Good for you!

      My pet hate is when people don’t return phone calls or emails. I find it kind of rude, but I suspect some people may just forget and some people are also thoughtless and selfish. It’s always easy to know exactly which category they belong to. I don’t like running after people either. I will give them a few chances and then if they don’t make a minimal effort I will leave them to their own devices and get on with my life because life is too short to waste on people who don’t care about you as much as you care about them.

      As for Facebook ane email, I couldn’t agree more! The advent of electronic networks and devices makes contacts so much easy, even more so when you have them all in one place. We’re so busy these days, but it’s so much more convenient and faster to send an email than it is to write a letter and take it to the post box. I don’t expect my friends to call me or contact me every week, but I think most friendships require a mimimum contact of say every 6 months, although of course there are also those exceptions who you rarely see and who you’ve known for so long that there’s kind of an unspoken agreement that you’ll always be cool with each other whenever you get round to seeing/contacting each other. What I object to, I guess, is people who live “round the corner” who still don’t bother to make the effort. I’ve met plenty of those. Granted, some people have other stuff on their plate, but sometimes people have time and still don’t bother to get in contact. That hurts a lot.

      I like the quote you read in the email – it’s pretty much what I was trying to say in my article – basically be thankful for the time you have with your good friends because they may not be with your forever, but your life may also be filled with new and wonderful friends.

      So glad you liked the article. Hugs back to you, my dear friend;-).

      Love,

      Sarah

  2. Donna 26 February 2011 at 3:28 am Permalink

    Sarah,

    Wow! This was awesome. You spoke many truths about friendship, some of them sad and others heartwarming.

    I think that some people come into your life for a short time and others forever. The best example that I can give is my best friend since high school is still just that but since she got married and had kids while I continued with school and working we would lose touch for long periods of time. We have been friends for almost 35 years now. We live in different states, sometimes we only see each other every few years. When I was fighting cancer we communicated daily. She is going through a divorce now and we speak often. My point is that we are there for each other for the important stuff but not always the day to day.

    I feel that work friends come and go. Most jobs that I have had I only seem to keep in touch with one person at most. It is weird because when you are working together they become almost like family because you share so many things in common. If the friendship survives after you no longer work together then it was meant to be.

    Once you become a parent you meet new friends because your children are friends. Sometimes they come and go and other times they stay forever too depending upon the type of friendship it was. I have one friend that I met through Nicholas that I hope will stay in my life even if our kids pursue different interests because we connect and see the world in a similar way.

    Now I have friends that I have met through Facebook that I adore and cherish. Some I met through playing a game and others because of thyroid disease and cancer. I believe that some of these people were meant to be in my life. They give me faith in the human race, they are like thinkers in one way or another. I love that I can communicate with people that may be different than me and find out that really we are all pretty much the same at the end of the day. I love that we check on each other, confide in each other and know that when one or the other needs each other we will be there. It amazes me really. I think it is so cool, I tear up thinking about it. I believe in my heart of hearts my life would not be complete if I lost these friendships.

    As far as illness and friendships, some grow stronger and others not so much. Some friends still expect you to be the same person because that is what works for them. Others don’t want to be reminded that they could get sick too. Some actually think we are making a mountain out of a mole hill. Others are patient and kind and walk the road with us. You do find out who your friends are, even your relatives for that matter. I take responsibility for not being the best friend I could when I was sicker than sick. As most of us know life can be hard when you are struggling to make it through the day. SOme people understand later when they experience illness themselves, others will never get it. Sometimes the people that show up are not the ones you thought would and vice versa.

    I have always said that if you expect nothing you will never be disappointed but sometimes pleasantly suprised. I approach my life that way and it works for me. I can”t say I was always that way though but life has taught me a few things along the way. Some people we connect with for temporary reasons and others get under our skin and it will always be. I try not to judge my friends, I understand that people are busy with living. I want them to know that if they need me I will be there and I know who I can reach out to as well.

    Blah, blah, blah! I am smiling from ear to ear because I would not know you but not for the internet and I can’t really imagine that even if we lose touch for a few weeks at a time.

    • Sarah Downing 26 February 2011 at 3:44 am Permalink

      Hey Donna,

      Glad you liked my article. Thanks for commenting. Your comments really moved me. I too believe that many people are in our lives for just a short time. It’s wonderful when you are able to hang on to those long-term friendships – it makes you cherish them even more, doesn’t it?

      I guess when you are a parent you are also meeting friends through your joint interest in your children. I occasionally meet friends through my interest in writing and languages. We are able to understand each other on certain topics that others don’t always comprehend.

      I love the flexibility of Facebook too. I haven’t always been a perfect friend myself, especially when I am so tired, but I think the essential question is whether or not you do your best to give what you can. I hope I didn’t appear judgemental when it comes to my friends. I don’t think I am because as I said you don’t always know why people act the way they do, but what does annoy me is when people are consistently flaky and unreliable or when they consistently come up with excuses as to why they don’t have time. It makes you wonder why you are friends with these people and it feels like your friendship with them is doing you more harm than good. I try not to get upset by these things, but I still do – more than I would like. I guess what I expect from a friendship is the bare minimum of effort and when people don’t even seem to give that, but still expect you to listen and be there, that’s when it’s time to say bye-bye. I’ve had plenty of those friends in my life and I really don’t have time for them anymore. I try to be there for people when I can and when they need me too, but only for those who would be there for me in at least some way. One-sided friendships are terribly frustrating. Sometimes people want you to be their friends, but they aren’t prepared to be yours if you see what I’m saying.

      Isn’t the Internet a great invention? You are right. If it weren’t for the World Wide Web, we never would have met. We still have to Skype call one of these days:-). Just let me know when you feel like it.

      I always appreciate your wise words. You are so level-headed and have such a great knowledge of people. You’re also very patient and I admire you for that.

      Love,

      Sarah

  3. Donna 26 February 2011 at 4:09 am Permalink

    Smooches sweet Sarah, don’t change for anyone!

    • Sarah Downing 26 February 2011 at 4:10 am Permalink

      Smooches back, sweet Donna – your words warm the cockles of my heart;-).

      Love,

      S

  4. anita (aj) 26 February 2011 at 6:13 am Permalink

    ah, great article on many fronts. as a person who has moved constantly, lived all over the globe and had a number of jobs in dozens of cities, i can tell you that you run into a lot of “seasons,” as michelle says. but, i also have a handful of ppl with whom i still have a warm, solid connection years after working with or meeting them. illness complicates the process of making friends or keeping friends in a significant manner.

    thanks for the thoughtful and interesting article!

    and i’m glad that we’ve become friends and co-conspiritors the way we have.

    • Sarah Downing 26 February 2011 at 9:51 am Permalink

      Thank you, Anita. I remember you telling me that you have moved around a lot. That really complicates matters too, as does illness. I’m also glad that we are friends and conspirators!

      Love,

      Sarah

  5. lori 27 February 2011 at 4:26 am Permalink

    Very well done, Sarah. You really covered everything. I also hate the comment “I haven’t heard from you in a long time”. Those are very frustrating relationships. There’s nothing like illness to clean out the closet, so to speak, and make you wonder why you ever put so much effort into a person for so long. I call them “takers” and I’m glad they are gone. I think a good friend needs to be able to empathize and not judge, even though they may not be able to understand what the other may be going through. I am at a place now I need to meet new people who enjoy a two-sided relationship. I cherish our friendship, Sarah! You have been a great friend!

    • Sarah Downing 27 February 2011 at 8:25 pm Permalink

      Thanks for your comments, Lori. I guess the reason I don’t like that particular comment is because it sounds so accusatory and in most cases I feel like I don’t have any reason to feel guilty. Sadly, there are plenty of takers/emotional vampires out there. I cherish our friendship too, Lori and am really happy to have met you and many of our my other thyroid friends!

      Love,

      Sarah

  6. Michelle 27 February 2011 at 11:31 pm Permalink

    Sorry for the late answer… my internet was up and down and I got frustrated. After that, there were 2 soccer games (one game each of my kids) and then came home, cooking, dinner and now when I login again, had finally the time to come over and give my second feedback.

    I am a very very very very veeeeeeery bad “first contacter”. I answer all I get, to a 100% and mostly within the same day. If you call me on the phone, I’m there. If I know you need me, I’m there. If I think you need me, I’m faster there! But it’s hard for me with all I have in my head to find the appropriate moment to sit down and call. It’s easier for me when someone calls me, to stop what I am doing than to stop to start a phone call. It’s weird, but I have tried a lot to change this without any success.

    With this been said, if we EVER lose contact, PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE don’t think that you have to run after me… just give me a nudge and I’ll be up and running!

    Also, in my humble opinion, there are people who are “friends” because they see a benefit on the friendship with me/you/whoever. Once this “benefit” is used or not needed anymore, they move on to their next “friend”.

    Sad, but true.

    • Sarah Downing 28 February 2011 at 12:27 am Permalink

      Hey Michelle,

      Don’t beat yourself up about being a “bad first contacter” as you call it. I think in a friendship everyone gives what they can, but as long as they give something that’s the main thing. For instance, it’s mainly me calling my sister-in-law – she admits that she’s not always good about calling people, but I know her and I also know how much she cares, so to me it doesn’t really matter that I call her more than she calls me. My pet peeve is more with people who don’t ever bother responding all of a sudden or with friends where it seems very one-sided. I totally agree – when it gets to the point where you feel that your friend is getting more out of the friendship than you are, you really need to start reevaluating things. People have their own lives and don’t always have time to be there for you, but as long as they are sometimes and let you know that they care, I think that is okay. When they never have time or try to make time, that’s frustrating and it feels like you are putting in so much without getting any return. There’s only so much effort you can invest without getting hurt.

      Have a great week and talk soon!

      Love,

      Sarah


Leave a Reply