Relationships and Chronic Illness: It’s Not Me, It’s You

“We see things not as they are, but as we are. Because it is the ‘I’ behind the ‘eye’ that does the seeing.”Anaïs Nin, Author

This is one of my favourite quotes.

It reminds me that I—actually all of us—must be mindful of the assumptions and judgments we make about people in our lives and people in the world around us because we rarely know all the reasons, past or present, that affect someone’s actions and/or behaviours.

Because it’s impossible for us to walk in another person’s shoes—regardless of how well we think we know them—it’s necessary, at all times, to take a deep breath and a step back to gain a broader view of any situation we might wander into accidentally or on purpose; to see it from the most objective and unbiased perspectives. Sadly, even when we take these measures it still may not be possible to understand the entirety of what’s happening.

Even more difficult than remembering to be mindful about the assumptions and judgments we make about people, is being the person on the receiving end of the scrutiny, especially the negative kind. It can be hard to bear. It can be hard to take in when excessively negative scrutiny and judgment come at us from people with whom we are open and share intimate details about ourselves: our true selves. Moreover, it can be painful and grief inducing when we realize that people with whom we believed we shared much and reciprocated care, may have never felt those things to the same degree we do.

As I live with and suffer daily with chronic pain, I can recognize the people connected to my life who see me through negative lenses. Whether it’s because they are still unable to grasp fully the nature of my illness because pain is not visible, or they don’t have enough interest to try to understand it better with the aim of being more accommodating to me; or they simply don’t care. I know and see who they are.

Living as I have for almost six years with chronic pain and the adverse effects from pain medications has not been conducive to maintaining and keeping friendships; nor has it helped strengthen certain familial bonds. In fact, I’ve lost friends—many friends—some of whom until the start of my illness, I spent copious amounts of time doing both ridiculously trivial activities and marking significant milestones in all our lives. I no longer see or hear from many of those people. No more mapping out weekend plans, meeting spontaneously for a drink or meals, or marathon conversations about nothing.

I hope all who read this recognize that I didn’t set out to write this post because I pity my circumstances. I’m writing this to reflect on how quickly and drastically an unexpected, long-term illness can change one’s life, especially socially. Never would I have imagined that people I cared for so deeply would turn away from me when I most needed support, given how supportive I’d always been for them. Never would I have imagined that I’d be accused—openly or passively—of trying to manipulate anyone into doing things for me, even at times when it’s most obvious that I’m not capable of doing those things for myself. Nor would I have ever imagined that anyone I trusted and cared for deeply would be unable to continue to see me as a whole person and instead only see what I could no longer do for or with them.

Admittedly, having a chronic illness has physically changed my life and made it more difficult for me to do many of the things I enjoyed in the past. However, in many ways, this illness and incessant pain have changed me positively. It has taken a long time (years) for me to arrive at a place where I no longer turn inward to catalogue my potential flaws in an effort to explain what may have fed actions taken by others, even those who turned away during the time of greatest need for me. I no longer hold my illness or myself responsible for their actions. I no longer try to rationalize how changes in my health might have made them feel uncomfortable. Additionally, I no longer make excuses about how their busy lives prevent them from connecting with me. Most importantly, I definitely no longer expend my often-limited energy missing them.

For anyone living with issues similar to mine, I can only hope that this helps you rethink how you see yourself and especially how you see yourself in relation to the people in and around your life. If people have chosen to remove themselves from your life because you now live with a chronic illness, that’s not a reflection on whom you are it’s clear evidence of who they are.

This is yet one more thing in my life to which I have consciously surrendered.

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