Why do they leave? When illness pushes people away

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Evening hospital window view, October 2016

I’ve had a fair number of friends drift away these past few years. Maintaining friendships takes far more time and effort than one might think, and when you suddenly lose the ability to put in that time and effort, you inevitably lose connections.

It seems to me that this is particularly the case with teenagers and young adults, who generally have never had to grapple with the fragility of their physical existence in any significant capacity. Sick people make young people uncomfortable; they don’t know how to confront the unfamiliarity of illness, and they don’t know what to say to someone dealing with problems that they can barely fathom.

Plenty of young adults live busy, vibrant lives; they have work, school, extracurriculars and hobbies. Many young adults living with illness lack nearly all of this. When your entire life is dedicated to staying alive and fighting for something resembling a quality of life, that fight can easily become your entire identity, and the extras that you used to enjoy can fade away.

Chronically ill teens and young adults frequently lose support systems when they need them the most. Those who you thought would be by your side forever, suddenly remove themselves from your life nearly entirely. You’re easy to forget, when you’re barely ever in their physical presence and you’re too tired to reach out. You search online, one of the few worlds still fully accessible to you, for new people to connect, and sometimes you find them. Unfortunately, their “real life” worlds have also shrunk down to the size of a hospital room and a computer screen. You relate to one another through your struggles in ways that no one else you know can, and it makes the loneliness a little easier. But, stuck alone at home with yourself, you still mourn your former social life.

Maybe some people believe that it’s better to say nothing at all, than risk awkward silences or, even worse, say something potentially offensive. Maybe some are just scared of hospitals and illness in general, and can’t help but avoid it. Maybe it isn’t illness itself that pushes away friends and loved ones, but rather all of it’s implications and social side effects. Maybe all we all need, is a little more education and a little more compassion.

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