When Your Friends Disappear

By Pat Akerberg, Columnist

Has this happened to you?

You get a medical diagnosis that is upsetting and life altering.  Soon it becomes clear that you won’t likely return to your previous life or be your old self again.

Now, more than ever, you look to your closest friends or family to stand by you and catch you before you fall and break, like Humpty Dumpty.   

But like a “trust-fall” exercise gone wrong – right when you need their safety net the most – they aren’t there!  And you fall hard.

Painful, isn’t it?  The pain of betrayal cuts through you like a knife.  It’s a blindsiding blow that you never saw coming.

Since my chronic illness struck, I have been very hurt by the unpredictable disappearance of a number of friendships along the way that I truly thought were solid.

Initially, I reacted the way most who are rejected and took it personally, adding insult to my injury. 

There were also elusive questions, plagued with doubt and recrimination: 

Is it my fault somehow?

Was it something I did or said, or didn’t do or say?

How did I not see this coming?   

These trap questions never have any real answers and just kept me spinning in an unresolved circular loop.

That began to shift when I learned that these undeserved desertions were happening to my trigeminal neuralgia friends too.

We realized that many times the ones who left were the very people we believed we could count on the most.  Some of the neediest ones were also the first to flee.

I reasoned it was about some deficiency in them – a lack of compassion, willingness to be uncomfortable, depth of character, or sincere caring.

I once read that “expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”  Deep down, yes, I had unconsciously assumed they would “be there” for me too.

Instead they purposely made a choice to not be there (a choice I didn’t have).  And when they weren’t, those unmet expectations became a source of my resentment. 

Maybe they excused themselves by rationalizing that they are “too busy”?

Or, maybe for some, it’s because they are still able to hold onto the illusion that they maintain a level of control – something I had clearly lost.  No cold, hard reality had come along to shatter that for them yet.

Who really knows why they chose to leave?

Eventually my questions about them gave way to more pertinent ruminations about friendships. I wondered if it’s realistic to think we can really know or count on the staying power of our friends until we encounter and work through adversity together.   

Things that we believe are shared between us – unique connection, loyalty, understanding, tolerance, mutuality, honesty, trust, humor, etc. – are much easier when they aren’t put to any serious test.

Even a union like marriage filled with vows attesting to honor that sacred relationship may not always last through the toughest of times.

Since there are no friendship vows, I’ve had to get clear about my boundaries and the friendship qualities that matter the most.  

At my lowest point, a long term “friend” judged my condition as “karma” and actually told me, “Everyone is going to die; you’re ‘just’ going to do it sooner.”

The karma notion blames the person and the word “just” implies “no big deal.” 

We were talking about my life!    

The cruelty of her words formed a boundary against that kind of harmful friendship.

Learning Self Care

Once I got past the sting of some friendships fading into obscurity and those that needed to, I began to explore some of those friendships and myself.  I hadn’t really assessed what was or wasn’t there.   

I took relationships seriously and was quite prone to meeting others needs.  Focusing on helping them often trumped my inner voice that warned of my limits, nudged me to ask for what I needed too, and let me know when that was missing.

Unwittingly, I had lost touch with my own self care.

Like many of you, pain limits my energy, capacities, and resources; and Self Care 101 means spending them wisely. 

Holding on trying to make inadequate friendships work takes too much energy. As my illness progresses and my needs shift, I’ve had to learn to loosen my hold and let go of so much that was or might have been.  That applies to some friends too.

It’s easier and wiser to see those departures as a welcome favor now.

That’s okay, because the friends that are left fit better.  The loss makes way for something better to show up.   

Free from dwelling on having been unfriended, I can focus instead on ways to best befriend myself these days. I am also free to fully feel my gratitude for those who are present (vs. missing).

The good news is that so often when disappointments and adversity strike, and while some friends and family run from the problem post-haste, there are also others who show up unexpectedly, and in more authentic ways.

Seemingly out of nowhere, their entrance shifts the whole equation from an exercise in subtraction to one of addition.

And thankfully, there are those bonafide friends who have been there for us all along.  Like my spouse/partner, they are a healing balm that can renew my weary spirit.   

These wonderful souls in our lives show us that there are still many compassionate people out there who truly understand how to care. Finding ways to be there for them too is energy well spent.

Friendships lost are an experience that I didn’t ask for and didn’t want, yet it woke me up to myself again.  It has urged me to treat myself like my own best friend -- a win-win worth cultivating.

Pat Akerberg suffers from trigeminal neuralgia, a rare facial pain disorder. Pat is a member of the TNA Facial Pain Association and serves as a moderator for their online support forum. She is also a supporter of the Trigeminal Neuralgia Research Foundation.

The information in this column should not be considered as professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It is for informational purposes only and represents the author’s opinions alone. It does not inherently express or reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of Pain News Network.