I have lived with chronic pain for well over a decade, and it never ceases to amaze me how many ways this pain continually affects my life. Not only does it take a physical toll on my body day in and day out, it affects me emotionally and mentally. As I learn to cope with it, I find ways that work and those that do not work. And, as I unfortunately discovered, it can – and will – destroy a friendship if the wrong way is chosen to cope with it. This is what I’ve learned about chronic pain as the third wheel in a friendship. Hopefully by sharing my experience, it will help you to avoid making the same mistake.
Bubble of Solitude
Whenever my body is having a higher than usual level of pain and it starts to become overwhelmingly stressful to handle, I withdraw into this tiny, little bubble that is a party of one – me. This solitude is just that – solitude. I’m not aware of doing it either. My body switches to survival mode as if the pain is too great to process, and my mind goes into full shutdown. It was a coping technique developed during the first several years of living with chronic pain, and I admit it’s not the greatest way to deal with pain, but one nonetheless.
During this isolation, I have many feelings swirling around inside: feeling ashamed and embarrassed by my condition, the sadness of the inability to live a ‘normal’ life free of pain, scared of being judged, being rejected, lack of understanding, and many more. A part of me is also fighting depression whether I recognize it or not. Like I said, it is easier to process it all when it’s just me. And if I’m going to be fully transparent – I sometimes sit in the safety of my closet free from light and sound. Again, not the best coping technique.
The Effects of Isolation on Loved Ones
It’s only after I come back and join the world of the living that my husband would tell me how isolated I was. He would tell me how the isolation affected him as well as our kids, and how it made him feel when I would push them away. I didn’t realize how hurtful that exclusion was on them. I was so busy dealing with my own feelings that I failed to consider theirs.
It has been nearly five years since I’ve had a period of isolation, and I have found myself doing it again. And this time it has had serious repercussions. Just as in times past, my eyes were opened to how my choice of coping with pain affects others. How my habits of isolation can hurt and wound friendships. Intentional or not – the results are the same.
When I’m isolating myself, I’m assuming my friends won’t understand my plight. I’m also assuming I know how they will react, what they will think, or what they will say. I’m not giving them a chance to show me how they feel and how they will react. In a way, I’m putting words into their mouths when they’ve had no chance to speak. How is that fair? It’s not.
When someone speaks for me, it is irritating. However, I am speaking for my friends when I refuse to reach out to them for help. Essentially, I am cutting off their help before they are able to even offer. I might as well say to them, “No, you cannot help me because I do not want your help. You are unable to help me, and therefore you are not needed.”
Don’t Be a Hypocrite – Give Your Friend a Chance
In a way, I am a hypocrite by encouraging others to ask for help and yet I cannot do the same. In my mind, I’m the only one who is experiencing this pain and suffering. This is not true and I’ve said as much many times before now. There is always someone experiencing what you’re experiencing in some way, or will experience, or have experienced it. If I don’t open up to a friend about it, how can I find out if they, too, have experienced it?
By not connecting and voicing my pain to a friend, I am not giving them a chance to share their thoughts, feelings, and possible similar experiences. When I’m not connecting, I’m leaving the other person to their own conclusions about my silence. What are they to think about me not communicating? They may think they’ve done something wrong or that I don’t want to be friends any more. They could assume I don’t value our friendship. Who could blame them? This is especially true when the isolation lasts for extended periods of time.
Instead of Isolating, Do This…
Instead of isolating myself and not communicating my pain, I could tell them about the tendency to withdraw. It could be a simple, “I am in pain. And when I’m in pain like this, I have a tendency to withdraw and isolate myself from others. It’s not anything you’ve done and I will try my best to keep an open line of communication during those times.” That is a lot better than silence. Silence can turn unintentional actions into hurtful ones.
I’m quick to empathize and understand the lives of those with an invisible illness, but I don’t give that same care and attention to those not living with it. Why should I treat them so differently? Do I not fight for a ‘healthy’ person to have compassion and consideration for the chronically ill? It’s as though I’m saying the only ones capable of empathy and compassion are those with invisible illnesses. And that is simply not true.
What if I didn’t have chronic pain and fibromyalgia? Would I have the same level of empathy, understanding, and concern as I do now? I would like to say yes, but I honestly do not know. I’ve been living this way for so long, I can’t remember a life without it much less what I thought of others living with it.
Choose How Pain Will Affect Our Loved Ones
You see, for me, pain has a way of creeping in and consuming, cloaking me with a veil of distrust, and skewing my outlook. I’m seeing the world through a distorted lens, and assuming I know what others will think of my illness. I refuse to wear that cloak of assumption and doubt any longer.
We may not have a choice of living with chronic pain, but we can choose how we allow that pain to affect us and our loved ones. I choose a new way of coping with pain and it includes communicating more with my friends. It will include reaching out more for help and sharing my feelings. It will feel as though I’m opening the door to vulnerability, but the possibility of enriching a friendship is worth so much more.
A Letter to My Friend
As a way to cope with the pain I have unintentionally inflicted on my friends, I have written a letter to those friends. This will not, by any means, replace the hurt I have caused. My sincerest apologies to each of you.
Lately, I have been withdrawn from you and our friendship. Calls, text messages, and visits seem to be occurring less often than they once did, and I’m sure this is leaving you with lots of unanswered questions. You may even have concluded that I no longer wish to be friends. Or you may feel as though you have done something to offend or anger me. I understand why you may feel this way, and I want you to know you have done nothing of the kind.
As you know, I live with chronic pain and fibromyalgia. I have shared some of the symptoms of living with this condition, but I have not told you the extent of it or just how bad it can get. It has been several years since experiencing pain of this magnitude and I have forgotten how it feels. It has affected me greatly, and one of the ways I cope with it is why I have become withdrawn.
Years ago, I developed a bad habit of isolating myself when the pain is unusually high for an extended period of time. The isolation is a way for me to process the pain and all the confusing feelings I experience during these times. Yes, I have some depression with it, but there is so much more that comes along, too. So much more, that I am unable to express these feelings as they are happening.
The mere thought of interacting with others while struggling with the pain and emotions leaves me feeling scared, vulnerable, and lost. I have fears of being misunderstood, rejected, or criticized. Often times, the weight of it all is suffocating and I sometimes feel I am unable to move on with life. Solitude seems less vulnerable, in its own way.
I wanted to give my sincerest apologies for not voicing this when it all started. All the times you reached out to ask about my health should have been answered with more transparency and honesty. Many times I wanted to tell you just how low I was feeling and how much the pain was hurting, but I remained silent. All the while, my silence was hurting our friendship. I’m so sorry.
By choosing silence, I unknowingly robbed you of the chance to offer help. Worse, I assumed you were incapable of understanding my circumstance. How selfish of me. How selfish of me to think you are unable to console, empathize, or have compassion for what I was experiencing. Can you forgive me?
I do value our friendship, and I do value you. My actions, or lack of actions in this case, have said otherwise, I know. There is nothing I can do to take back the hurt I’ve caused you. I can only change my behavior during these times moving forward. So….
I make a promise to you and us, I will try my best to reach out to you when I’m having these periods of isolation. I will let you know when I’m having a heightened sense of pain and swirl of emotions too complicated to process. I will invite you into my bubble of solitude while transforming my loneliness into openness. And while I cannot promise you I will be able to convey those emotions I’m dealing with, I do promise to cry on your shoulder, if you’re still willing to let me. I’ll even bring my own tissues.
I am sorry for not being as good a friend to you as you have so many times been to me. I am sorry for judging you, rejecting you, and turning my back on you. I hope you are willing to continue our friendship, and give me a chance to be a better friend to you. I hope you are willing to stand with me in my fight to get well again, and give me some of the strength that I have lost.
Your loving friend,
About the Author:
Brandi is a wife to an amazingly supportive husband, mom to five sweet, crazy kiddos, and a fibromyalgia thriver. As a Navy veteran living in South Carolina, she spends her days cherishing the time with her family as well as reading, writing, cooking, and just being Brandi. Her blog, Being Fibro Mom, is all about thriving the family life while living with fibromyalgia, and the support group, Fibro Parenting, gives additional support and resources to fibro parents. Brandi’s other work in the fibro community include writing for The Fibromyalgia Magazine, hosting a live show about fibromyalgia, and serving as Families & Fibromyalgia program director for the International Support Fibromyalgia Network.