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.