I wasn’t much of a social butterfly growing up, so it was particularly ironic that I got sick just as I was coming out of my cocoon: keeping a social life is hard enough, and adding in the wildcard of chronic illness sure doesn’t help.
Worry not, though! This story has a happy ending. Despite these extra challenges, I’ve built an active social life with great, meaningful friendships—and you can, too! It just takes even doses of communication, self-care, and boundaries.
Here’s a handy list of phrases you can whip out in a variety of situations to strengthen your connections, no matter how sick you are. Happy socializing!
01 “I want to attend, as long as my illness doesn’t throw me any surprises.”
Setting expectations is one of the best things you can do for a friendship, chronic illness or not. If you think there’s a chance of needing to bail, drop these magic words so that the person knows you’re 100% committed, but that things outside of your control could crop up and cause you to bail. This lets them know what to expect of you, and it helps to clarify that if you do back out, it’s not for lack of wanting to join in.
02 “Please keep sending me these invitations!”
The number one complaint I see around friendships and chronic illness is a fear of not being invited to any more gatherings because you never show up – that your friends will slowly forget you exist.
Communication can help! If you miss an event, take a moment to talk to the organizer. Tell them you’re sad you missed it. Then remind them that you might need to miss a bunch of things but that you always look forward to their events. This, of course, works for one-on-one hangs, too.
If you aren’t reticent about this stuff and are very transparent, people will adjust their expectations without much fuss and keep you in the loop both because they like you, and because you asked that as a favor from them.
03 “I appreciate you.”
This goes quite well with the last one. When you aren’t showing up for events or are turning down invitations, your friends might start to feel unappreciated or as if you don’t like them. While you know that couldn’t be further from the truth, their trust in that will eventually erode without your standard “being physically present” reinforcement. That’s why it’s important to demonstrate that affection in other ways.
It might feel a little awkward at first, but listen: people love being appreciated and are pretty unlikely to act weird about it. Tell them you like them. Tell them why. Tell them you value their company and friendship. Tell them what they do, specifically, that makes you feel connected. And if you’re the kind of person who self-isolates, tell them you’re terrible at reaching out but love it when they contact you. This helps them feel that the relationship isn’t one-sided.
04 “That doesn’t work for me. Here’s why and here’s something that does.”
Most folks are used to making certain types of hangout arrangements. Loud bars, intense activities, big parties… you name it. And when you’re sick, sometimes you’ve gotta get creative. They might not know that, though, so be direct and tell them so!
Of course, they won’t know your condition or needs unless you actually give them that information, so be sure to let them know why something doesn’t work. What elements are a problem?
Finally, don’t put all the work on their shoulders. If you’re shutting down an idea, then provide a new one. One that works for you. Don’t be afraid to go for more outlandish stuff—as long as you’re both happy, there really is no wrong way to socialize or hang out.
05 “I’m booking out a few months/weeks in advance right now.”
People are also pretty used to scheduling in the near future. But when you have a million doctor appointments and need to spend the majority of each day resting or doing self-care, your schedule fills up real fast.
So, lean into that. Be your own receptionist! I have uttered these magic words more times than I can count, and it’s always very successful. If they know you, they know you have a full workload just keeping your life together (and if they don’t, tell them!) Everyone’s calendar is likely to be clearer that far down the line, anyway. Make a tentative plan with them, and have a reminder to yourself to check in a week or two before and make sure the plan still works.
For the most success with this strategy, take some time to figure out how many social engagements you can handle (and/or need to feel human) per week and what times of the day or week are easiest for you, and set those aside in your mind. Then, when someone asks when you’re free, flip through your calendar until you find an empty slot.
06 “Let’s take a sec to calendar before we say goodbye.”
A lot of things get lost in the fray of chronic illness, and friendships can be one of these. If you want to hang onto a connection with someone, make sure to end a visit or phone call by making plans (or at least sending a text with the start of that conversation) for the next time, even if it’s a while from then.
It also helps to find an ongoing activity of some kind. Whether it’s a weekly/monthly phone call or gaming session, occasional snail-mail letters, a game of words with friends, or something entirely different, make sure you have a sustainable way to connect on the regular. This’ll help keep that friendship from fading away.
07 “Let’s talk.”
It’s important to know that sometimes people legitimately don’t know what to do for a sick friend or how to reach out. It sucks, but you can take control of the situation.
First of all, take some time to evaluate: is the relationship really important to you? Because the brutal reality is that you’re probably gonna have to make some cuts in your life; it’s possible this relationship, with its less-than-stellar performance, is one of them. But if they really matter to you and are worth a little emotional labor, it might be worth trying to reconnect with them with a courageous conversation.*
Be straightforward. Name the fact that they disappeared, but try not to place blame. Ask them how they’re doing with your diagnosis, whether they’re having any trouble figuring out how to relate to you now, etc. Tell them they are valuable to you and you want to maintain your connection, and see how they respond.
It’s possible that you won’t get what you want out of this, so manage your expectations. But sometimes all it takes is a little openness and willingness to troubleshoot.
* Thanks to The Struggle Bus Podcast for this fabulous term.
08 “I love this person, but our relationship has changed.”
This is one of those phrases you say to yourself. Because here’s the thing: some people are going to be flakes, aren’t going to understand your illness, or are just going to be too busy to make time for you if it isn’t a part of the rhythms of their life. Folks you saw all the time before you were sick are going to fade into the background as your own life changes, and that’s really okay! It doesn’t make their friendship more or less valuable or valid; it’s just different now. Acceptance is key.
Take a hard look at your friendship. If you’re always trying to get a plan together and they keep losing the thread, it’s okay to let it go. It doesn’t mean they don’t love and adore you, but it does mean that for your own emotional safety it’s time to hold them a little more at arm’s length. Don’t put in more effort than you’re getting out of them.
Sometimes if you aren’t forced together by circumstance (school, work, etc.), the dynamic just doesn’t quite work. That doesn’t mean you didn’t have a special connection, or that you have to cut off that connection. It just means you might have to relegate them to the status of “we catch up sometimes but I understand that our relationship won’t go past a certain point.”
09 “See ya!”
Honestly? Some people aren’t worth it. And your time and energy are increasingly more valuable. So value yourself, and cut those folks loose! It certainly hurts a bit, but it’s better than feeling low-key miserable over a relationship.
Give yourself time and space to grieve, to feel betrayed, and whatever else you need. Then when you’re ready, come back to the memory of the friendship, and appreciate it for what it was. Maybe you can reconnect later. Just remember, there’s a difference between a fair-weather friend (i.e., someone who bails when the going gets tough, and isn’t worth a damn) and a friendship that lost its mojo due to circumstance but has the potential to be rekindled later.