Illness and real vs imaginary friends

My illness has robbed me of many things. But perhaps the greatest thing it has taken from me is friendship.

Of course, it’s not all the fault of the illness. I knew I was too lonely working at home so I tried working full-time outside the home again. Not only was it too hard on me physically, but I also found that I couldn’t make friends.

There was once a time when I could make friends at work; it doesn’t seem like so long ago. Even when I worked for the library back in Michigan, I felt like I had friends there. I’m still friends with two of the people I worked with at BabyCenter, which was a completely online job. I didn’t socialize nearly as much at that job as my coworkers did and that may not have helped my job standing, but I still managed to make a couple friends.

I’m not sure if it’s due to the way the illness has changed my brain or just the particular places I’ve worked, but I’ve had a lot more trouble since I returned to Texas. Both my recent job and the job I held in Downtown Dallas were mostly staffed by recent college graduates, so I didn’t fit in simply as a matter of age because I was so much older and no longer into hard drinking.

I made friends at the secretly-Baptist church I attended for two years. It was safe to talk about my traumas and illness with them, but they otherwise did not know the real me. Even still, during that time I also distanced myself from the online moms group I’d been part of for 16 years.

I had reasons for leaving the moms group. I felt like the same couple of members were going on campaigns every few months to turn on one member and essentially run them off. It would be presented with a ton of faux concern even though it was dripping with judgment. It would polarize the group and end up with not only the one being attacked leaving, but also many of her supporters. It was in one of those rounds that I also left. It was distasteful–and I also figured it was only a matter of time until they turned on me, too.

At the time, I was still at church. Even though my moms group knew the real me and my church friends didn’t, I couldn’t yet foresee a day when the church friends wouldn’t be around. One of my closest church friends said she considered me like a daughter–but of course she dropped me once I stopped attending, so I guess the “like a daughter” only goes so far. When I left church, nearly all of my friends from there stopped talking to me, so they were just situational friends all along.

Now I’m left with virtually no one besides my husband. We’ve always been each other’s best (and sometimes only) friends, but it would be nice for both of us to have additional social support.

Now I’m going through this adjustment to my illness and disability filing, and I’m not sure how much it’s appropriate to talk about to people, anyway.

I could try to make friends with people in the online MS groups. But often I feel like that just reminds me more of why this disease sucks and it scares me more. I need to try to maintain a more positive attitude than that.

The fact of the matter that runs through everything is that I don’t honestly know how to be a good friend. I’m extremely generous with friends who need help, which is never reciprocated and often makes things weird. I don’t think trying to bail out my friends when they’re in trouble is the right way to maintain friendships. It often creates weird power differentials. But after all these years, I still don’t know what is the right way.

I’ve never really known the right way to make friends. I have vague guesses that you’re just supposed to talk about surface-level stuff with people you have something in common with. But I don’t know how to talk surface-level. It’s hard to find people I have things in common with. And often trying to make friends brings back all these weird, lonely feelings from my earliest childhood, when I came on too strong in my desperation to have friends.

When I didn’t understand when and if to give my opinions and when to keep them to myself.

When I didn’t know enough about pop culture to even have surface-level stuff to talk about.

So many of those things are still true for me. I still want friends as much as ever and still feel like I’m sabotaging any friendships that have potential. I don’t know how not to be weird. I don’t know how normal conversations are supposed to go. I don’t know why I keep thinking that trying to rescue my friends is my job when all they probably want is sympathy.

It feels like there was some essential social-skill training everyone else got except me.

Maybe as I adjust to being disabled, I also have to learn to be more comfortable with being lonely. In truth, I’m somewhat introverted anyway. But I am not as introverted as my current circumstances make me be.

I really thought that based on the interviews, my most recent full-time job was going to be a great fit. I’ve realized that when I feel like people really like me, I’m actually somewhat extroverted. But the faintest hint that people don’t like me makes me retreat into my turtle shell. Unfortunately, at my recent job, it seemed like I turned back into the quiet introvert almost immediately and it all went downhill from there.

I’m not really sure what to do from here. I don’t really know how to form close friendships anymore. I don’t know how to maintain the friendships I already have, either. I need friends more than ever, but maybe this is a time to retreat. Try to come to terms with my illness. As I said above, nobody else is too interested in that. And unfortunately, it takes up most of my thoughts these days.

I’m revisiting my childhood lately and a lot of that was traumatic. Simply the fact of acknowledging myself as disabled is making me revisit my life and re-evaluate what I’ve done vs what I wanted to do. It’s hard not to feel like my life as I knew it is over, and that makes it that much harder to try to “be normal.” I’m not sure it’s even possible to be normal in these circumstances.

Sometimes I think I’ll turn back to religion. It would be so easy to go back to the secretly-Baptist church and have instant friends again, but it would still feel as dishonest and empty. I still think the Catholic Church is probably true and the practice of the faith itself is often beautiful. But it’s also almost inherently lonely. It’s hard to make friends at a Catholic church unless you have a ton of young kids or you’re over 55.

Maybe I’m clinging to the shreds of faith that remain in me and trying to start something from the kindling just because I’m lonely. Maybe God and Mary and the saints are just imaginary friends. But right now imaginary friendships are the only ones I can seem to maintain.

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