My friend C. once wrote that vulnerability does not always have to mean a state of weakness:
In order to function in my everyday life, I have to be vulnerable and explain why my body “doesn’t show up” when it needs to and that sometimes exposes me to feelings of powerlessness. At the same time, it exposes me to my own courage, resiliency, and even to these words.
Think about that. Isn’t that something radical and beautiful? Being vulnerable is a state that I am placed into because of my body but it is also a position of boldness. It is the same condition that allows you to love, explore and seek out meaning in your life, and relate to each other’s humanity. That’s not weakness; rather, that’s power.
Can being forced to rely on others actually be a good thing– something that forces you to connect?
This question struck a chord within me, after a lot of the things that have happened in the past few years.
You may have noticed that I say much more about science than personal stuff on this blog. Partly, of course, that’s because it’s public, and to say too much about my life would be terrifying.
But at the same time– despite how complicated it is, and how many classes I had to take to get to this point– the science is actually much simpler to me, compared to trying to manage relationships when you have chronic pain.
During the five years that I struggled with sacroiliac joint dysfunction, I lost friends.
Looking back now, I realize that it probably wasn’t just because of my physical issues. It probably would have happened anyway–my health problems were just the catalyst.
I was 25 when I first developed these problems. I have written elsewhere about how terrified I was; how confused. I had just gotten answers for my chronic pain problem, and now, all of a sudden, I had this pinching sensation in my low back and I could barely walk.
For a while, everything went out the window. I couldn’t climb stairs; it hurt to climb into the shower. At times, my physical appearance slipped.
I went to meet friends for coffee in sweatpants. On Saturdays, I had to wait until the very end of the day to use my gym pool, because it was filled with swim lessons the whole rest of the day. This meant I’d show up at social events late, sometimes with my hair wet.
I had to plan ahead. Sometimes it hurt so much to drive that I preferred to take public transportation. I wasn’t always the easiest person to coordinate with; I admit it.
Some of my friends were happy to stand by me, and our relationships were unchanged. Yet, with others, it seemed I could no longer keep up, and I stopped getting invited to things.
The most painful part of this that it wasn’t just my casual friendships that slipped away.
Instead, some of my most cherished friendships turned into a scenario where instead of a friend, I started to feel like an unpaid therapist. I’d be available to listen for hours, when the other person needed someone to talk to about her problems on a Sunday afternoon, or a weekday evening. On Friday or Saturday night, I wouldn’t actually be invited out. But sooner or later, I knew that next phone call for help would be coming.
To an extent, I think it comes down to the amount of strength people have to offer. As the saying goes, “People cannot give you something they don’t have themselves.”
I noticed it’s the people who were the most unhappy in their own lives, the ones who felt they were under the most pressure to conform and live up to superficial standards, that were the most likely to let our friendships be affected.
Over time I came to realize it wasn’t a reflection on me. Yes, maybe there were a few things I could have done differently to be easier to make plans with, but my real friends took it in stride. They stood by me, and were still willing to be seen in public with me, even if (God forbid) I was wearing flats and I wasn’t wearing makeup.
Now I understand that these things just happen. If a friendship couldn’t withstand my having physical limitations, it wasn’t meant to be. What it really means is that person, at that moment in time, did not feel secure with her own life, and did not feel she was in a position to have anything to give.
As my friends and I hit our late 20’s, there was just something about the age of 30 approaching. We all felt the pressure looming over us: the end of our free, hippiesh 20’s. The growing pressure to find a career we were going to stick to for the rest of our lives. Find a husband. Settle down. Have kids.
As one friend put it, it was almost as though 28 and 29 were the age we realized for the first time that, in fact, someday we were going to die. We’d always known it in the abstract, but now we were beginning to understand that we weren’t special; we were just like everyone else. (Looking back now, I know this sounds a little absurd. But somehow it was a truth that hit us all, at the same time).
In the face of this growing pressure, people changed. I think it’s worse for women. In fact, I know it’s worse for women.
So I don’t take it as a rejection; I take it as a sign that my friends weren’t okay with where their own lives were at. When you’re able to be there for someone else, and put your own needs aside, it means you’re strong. And I am grateful that, despite everything– despite my ever having dared to create the spectacle of showing up in public without makeup– I am still the kind of person who has the strength and security to be there for other people.
Ultimately, I am the one who chose to walk away from these relationships, although it’s not like I really felt I had much of a choice.
It just got to the point where the dissolution of the friendship seemed inevitable. I saw the writing on the wall and decided to focus my efforts on the people who were there for me; the people who had something to give.
With my extra free time, I reached out to people I’d been meaning to get to know better, but had always been too busy.
I discovered that acquaintances I’d known for years were actually amazing people, and some of them became my new best friends.
Honestly, I was sad for a long time, and it didn’t all come together overnight.
It took a while for my new friendships to solidify. I had to wade through a period of loneliness first; it took time to reach out to new people and build new relationships.
And sometimes I wanted to run back. But I didn’t. There was no going back.
Over time things came together. I can honestly say now that for everything and everyone that I’ve lost, I ultimately found something new, and something that fit me better for this stage of my life.
But It took time.
I still have the positive memories of my old friendships. I’ll always be grateful.
Now, I understand that life isn’t perfect, and people will usually hurt you in an attempt to heal themselves. It’s because they feel like something is missing, and they don’t know what to do to find that missing piece. It isn’t personal.
But it is okay.
I will always have the good memories. I can still love the people I loved, even if I had to walk away in order to make room for something new.