I love Stephanie Dowrick’s work. So many of her ideas have become a part of my thinking that it can surprise me when I re-read one of her books. “So THAT’s where I got it from!”
In ‘Universal Love’ she taught me a life changing lesson; No single human being can meet anyone’s every emotional need. Obvious really. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to do so. Yet romantic love songs would have us believe that our ‘soulmate’ can somehow be everything we ever needed. Stephanie’s opinion was eloquently reinforced when I complained to a girlfriend one day about my husband’s desire to fix my problems rather than just listen and empathise. “Well you don’t have a husband for that. That’s what you have girlfriends for!”
Since that time, along with taking responsibility for my own happiness, I’ve recognised that a rich, healthy emotional life is populated by all sorts of relationships with a diverse collection of people. Some of them have been here for the long haul. Some have suddenly, sometimes painfully, decided not to be part of my life. Some of them are deep, intimate relationships and some of them are joyful and light hearted.
I think of my relationships with other people as being a series of concentric circles. Here’s me, right in the middle and all on my own. This is the me that only I know, with all my hopes, dreams, secrets and shadows. This is my core and essential to being mentally healthy. There is a ‘me’ that exists independently from anyone else. Ask any of my friends who I am and you’ll get lots of slightly different descriptions. None of them are really me. This is me.
The next circle out are the people closest to me. My husband, my daughter. Close family and people that I’ve chosen to make part of my family.
The next circle are my dearest friends, followed by the broader group of friends we socialise with and so on out to the local chef at our favourite restaurant, the guys that deliver the mulch for my garden and the woman at the supermarket check out that always calls me ‘Darling’ and asks how my day has been.
Beyond these circles are the people I’ll never meet, the people I am yet to meet and the people that are no longer a part of my life.
This model has been very useful to me over the years. When someone becomes more distant I think of them as moving outwards through the circles. I’ve sometimes deliberately repositioned someone because my relationship with them was destructive, negative or just uncomfortable. I rarely ‘unfriend’ someone but I sometimes mentally shift the relationship to a safer place.
I’ve also used it to acknowledge those friendships that grow closer over time. People move in. Most of my closest friends were further out when we met. It’s a rare friendship that starts in an inner circle.
Movement becomes more likely the further out you go. The occasional relationships with shop staff don’t require a huge emotional investment and I’d be momentarily sorry if the nice woman moved on to another job but it wouldn’t make a big difference to my life. The closer you get to the centre, the higher the emotional investment and the more traumatic it can be when these relationships shift.
I’ve heard about people with breast cancer that find themselves suddenly without a partner or a very dear friend. That hasn’t happened to me and I don’t think there’s any way to feel about that other than devastated. I heard of one woman whose husband chose the day of her diagnosis to announce he’d be leaving her for another woman. He figured she may as well have all her bad news at once. I hope he gets the life he deserves.
Cancer has a way of messing with your relationships. Some people move closer and some move further out. Some people are good in a crisis and enjoy being able to help. Some people find the disease confronting, frightening and difficult to deal with. Some people just have other priorities.
I’ve had some people quote that cliche: “You find out who your friends are.” This implies that the people that stay away aren’t my friends. I don’t think that’s true. I think everyone gets to react to cancer in their own way. I saw the same thing when my Dad died of cancer. We were shocked that some life long friends were suddenly, silently absent. We were moved by the generosity of outer circle friends that moved in to help. It was also interesting to observe the way some people provided quiet, timely, practical assistance without any thought for themselves and some people turned up in the final days of his death to be demonstrably distressed or suddenly saint like. Real life drama will attract the drama queens!
I’m a long, long way from the final days of my life. My friends are all figuring out their own strategies for how to respond to my illness. Some of them have bought me thoughtful gifts, weeded the garden, cooked food, taken me out, given me a hug, sat and talked and listened and listened and listened. Some have sent cards or messages on facebook or emails. Some have come with me to chemotherapy or doctors appointments or researched my cancer and sent me information.
And some have stayed away.
Some of them have made contact to say that they are sorry, but they just can’t deal with cancer. Some of them have a history of nursing someone they love through cancer, or watching someone they love die from it. They shouldn’t worry. Friends stay friends. I hope when I’m through all this we can catch up again.
Some of them have just vanished from my life.
I think that some of them were busy when they first got the news and that now, several months later, it feels odd to make contact. They shouldn’t worry. Friends stay friends. I understand. Get back in touch when you’re ready. Time is pretty much standing still for me at the moment anyway. Has it been months? It feels like days.
I also think it’s likely that some of them have so much going on in their own lives that they feel badly about not being able to do more and so they stay away. They shouldn’t worry. I know that not everything is about me! Everyone has their own stuff to deal with and I don’t have any expectation that any friend will make me a priority. All offers of assistance are gratefully accepted. But don’t feel obliged. Each according to their ability and their desire.
I know that when friends face difficulty I’m one of those people that likes to do something practical to help, but I also know that, depending upon what’s going on in my life at the time it’s not always possible for me to be there for them. That’s life. It’s a messy, complicated thing which refuses to behave nicely when you need it to.
I’m pretty sure that at least a few of my friends find my illness and my appearance confronting. I’ve now got that classic cancer patient look about me. My hair is gone. My eyelashes and eyebrows are thinning (but still hanging in there..woohoo!). I suppose it would make it easier for people if I’d make more of an effort to look normal but the chemotherapy has triggered menopause and my bald head is a wonderful heat release system for the hot flushes. Sometimes you’ve just got to put your own comfort first. I am. They are entitled to do the same.
I know some people find being around me upsetting. It’s not that I’m a bag of misery. I’m mostly pretty cheerful. It’s just that cancer is a conversation vampire and inclined to remind people of the chance that I might die in the not too distant future, or that they might die in the not too distant future. Some people do not want to have afternoon tea with death. I get it. Being around this disease is not anybody’s idea of fun!
Some people don’t know what to say. There’s no script for this. It’s awkward to say “How are you?” when the obvious answer is “I have cancer.” If you’re stuck, just ask what the nurses in hospital ask. “How are you feeling today?”
And talk about yourself. Please. Tell me what’s going on in your life and something funny that happened last week and what you’re planning to do with your next holiday. I love not talking about cancer.
I’ve been very lucky. My husband has been more wonderful than I expected. The friends that I knew I could rely on have just kept being the amazing people that they are. Thanks to Facebook I feel surrounded by community of friends from every circle that continue to flood me with their love and good wishes. Some of them don’t see this as doing much, but it’s one of the most important things that anyone can do. Just knowing that all those people are wishing me well and thinking of me gives me strength and courage. I’m going to need both of those.
I know that some people will move inwards and some people will move outwards and that there’s a possibility that some people will move out of my life. It’s all good. At the end of all this, some people will be closer friends and some people won’t but I’m sure that there will still be people in every circle. It’s quality that matters when it comes to those inner circles, not quantity.
To the friends that have stayed away, please know this; I do not think badly of you. I understand why some people stay away. Know that if, from time to time, you hold a thought of me in your heart and wish me well then that is enough. I hope you find a way to reconnect when you are ready. And if not, I wish you a life of good friendships.
PS: To all those friends that stayed away when they had colds, or even thought they might have early symptoms, or were over a cold but just wanted to make sure they didn’t infect me with something that could put a chemotherapy patient into hospital, my very sincere thanks.