Sickness never happens in a vacuum. It affects every relationship you have, from your marriage to the bond with your goldfish. While many articles have addressed the breakup of a romantic relationship because of depression, few have discussed the fallout of friendships, which is all too common. At a meeting for mental health bloggers in Boston yesterday, I spoke with the author of the award-winning Depression Marathon blog. She said that her post about losing friends was her most popular piece. “I acknowledge this loss as one of the most difficult in an illness full of painful losses,” she writes.
Friends Don’t Take a Vow
The nature of certain friendships are fleeting. After all, friends don’t have the same commitment to us as spouses do. When the companionship is no longer enjoyable, there isn’t a vow before God to ensure they aren’t going anywhere. Symptoms of depression and bipolar disorder are difficult for some people to tolerate. We are sensitive, imaginative, energetic, playful, and fun. But we can also be irritable, moody, impulsive, and sad. Not everyone appreciates a colorful personality. As much as the rejection stings, we shouldn’t interpret their response as an indictment of who we are, but rather as a preference for a relationship that is more neutral or bland, without the work that is sometimes required in a relationship with someone with a mood disorder.
According to AARP, estimates for the divorce rate among couples in which one partner has a serious chronic illness are as high as 75 percent. One report published in the journal Cancer showed that women who had a serious illness were seven times as likely be become separated or divorced as men with similar health problems. In a study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage, the rates of divorce were highest among bipolar, paranoid, and schizophrenic residents (18 percent, 12 percent and 12 percent respectively). According to some experts, the divorce rates for couples where there is bipolar disorder are two to three times higher than the national average (40 percent).
I don’t know what the statistics are for broken friendships due to chronic illness, but I’m guessing we could double or triple those numbers.
All Illness Is Uncomfortable
While I used to think the ending of friendships was unique to mood disorders, a recent conversation with my friend who was just re-diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma made me see it’s universal to all illness. She doesn’t have the crying spells of depression that turn off some folks, but her bald head is a reminder to visitors that death is something we can’t avoid, and some people are simply too uncomfortable to go near that.
“Have you lost friends as a result of your cancer?” I asked her the other day.
“Oh yeah,” she said. “I only have a few good friends I can count on. You learn a lot about people when you’re diagnosed. They either run toward you or run away. But I’m actually okay with that. Because you really only need a few good friends in your life.”
Chronic disease can often push the limits of friendship and if you’re reading this as a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, you may have experienced this in one form or another. There are the friends who just don’t know what to say and they silently leave your friendship behind after a few obligatory ‘what can I do to help?’ offerings.
Then there are the friends who try their best as they know it, but for the present they often stumble over the all-too often heard line ‘you look so good, you must not be feeling so bad.” It is hard for many people to understand the ‘look so good’ disease status and why we just can’t push on for that extra event or activity.
Depression and Isolation
I know how difficult it is to sustain friendships while in a depressive episode. When my pain reaches a certain point, I tend to avoid the people I should lean on for support. I stop showing up for swim practice in the morning, I no longer go to lunch with co-workers, and I skip happy hours. Isolation is a hallmark symptom of depression due to a combination of apathy, fatigue, and an inability to keep a conversation light. It’s difficult for a person with severe depression to master a poker face and chit chat comfortably in a social setting. They are afraid to be real and risk further alienation from friends so they do the safe thing and stay home. While logical, this behavior interrupts friendships even more and breeds deeper isolation.
Enjoy the Season and Let Go
One way to get around the sadness of lost friendships is to focus on the good memories and realize that letting go is what’s best, according to Lexie Manion in her blog How to Deal With Losing Friends When You Have Depression. She also concentrates on the loved ones that are still in her life. “Focusing on those who remain in my life throughout the rainstorms remind me that I’m not hopeless or broken; they’re proof that I’m not at fault for losing friendships,” she writes.
Any relationship with someone who is ill demands patience, understanding, and a commitment. I’m learning that not everyone can tolerate the messiness that is involved with cancer, depression, or another chronic condition. Usually it’s the folks who have been down the path of illness themselves that pick up the phone or send an email.
I suppose there is a season for everything.
With depression, the seasons seem awfully short.
We need to do our part–to show up and make the effort. But if a friendship is not meant to be, all we can do is let go gracefully and celebrate any good that came with it.