• Keeping Friends

Reader Wisdom: On Chronic Pain and Friendship

Published: August 19, 2015 | Last Updated: September 28, 2023 By | 12 Replies Continue Reading


A reader with chronic pain who asked to remain anonymous didn’t have a friendship question, per se. Rather, she wanted to explain the friendship challenges she’s been facing as someone living with a chronic health condition.

Her letter has been shortened and edited very lightly.

Let me start by saying that I have a health condition that has caused me to have chronic pain for the past 4 years. The pain I have is often compared to having bone cancer, which is one of the worst kinds of pain imaginable. Although I do take pain meds I am at the maximum allowed for someone who is not terminal. My pain meds only lessen my pain enough for me to barely get by.

Life before chronic pain (LBCP)

My “life before chronic pain” (LBCP) was much different than it is now. It started when I was 38 and I am now 42. LBCP, I had friends. Not a ton of friends, as I have always valued quality over quantity. These friendships included childhood friends, high school friends, college friends, friends I made as a young mother and other more recent friendships.

When I became ill every single friend disappeared from my life. As I reflect on those friendships I am at a loss as to why this happened. I just can’t understand it. I’m not perfect so I am sure I must be at fault in some way.

The loss of a friendship

This would be way too long if I tried to describe each friendship, but I will describe the one that hit me the hardest. My friend “K” and I met in the 4th grade. We “broke up” in middle school over something stupid and my family and I moved across town to a different middle school.

By High School we were in the same school again and quickly became best friends again like nothing ever happened. We went through a lot together. Good times… bad times…You name it but we loved each other dearly.

By our early 20s we had settled into a more adult and drama-free relationship. Then she got married. The man she married disliked all of her friends (not just me) and pretty much took all control of her. Our friendship faded away tono contact. There was no big dramatic event… It just happened, and soon I got married and life took us both in different directions.

Then about 15 years later we reconnected when we ran into each other at a local store. It was like we never had that 15-year gap. We began to talk a lot and occasionally got together when her husband would allow it.

About a year after that, she left her husband, who had been abusive to her during their marriage. (No big surprise). I was divorced 10 years before that so I understood. I was there for her every step of the way. I helped with her kids; I helped her when she had the flu for a week; I helped her move and have a garage sale, I was a good listener, even gave her money a couple of times. (I usually don’t “loan” money…. If someone I love needs it, I don’t want that weirdness that comes if they don’t pay me back).

Shortly after her divorce, it was the 4th of July. My husband was working out of town and my daughter was with her Dad. I called to see what she was doing and she was upset because although she had her kids for the 4th she didn’t have any money for fireworks or even a BBQ. So I flew into action and bought fireworks and food, and went to her house and surprised her. We had a really fun evening!

I don’t say all of that to toot my own horn. And never did I or do I now think they “owed” me anything…except maybe friendship in return, which is only human nature.

After the onset of pain

Within that year my hip pain started. The first week of it was horrible because I didn’t have a diagnosis and no pain meds so I was in bed 24/7. My husband was still working in another state and I called “K” and told her what was happening and asked if she could go to the grocery store for me.

“Sorry,” she says. “I promised my kids I would take them to the movies. In fact, I have them all weekend so maybe Monday night after work if I’m not too tired.”

Her two oldest are teenagers so it wasn’t like she couldn’t leave for a bit. I was flabbergasted. I called another friend, one whom I had let live with me for three months the year before when she was homeless. She had no kids and no job.

“Sorry. I don’t have gas money,” she said.

Me: “I will give you gas money.”

“Uh, well I don’t have enough gas to get to your house,” she said.

She posted on Facebook that same night that at the last minute, a friend invited her to a concert. It included a selfie in front of HER CAR in front of the venue, which was in another town.

I called my Mom and Dad who live an hour away.

Dad: ” If you can’t find anyone else I can get you groceries on Monday when I am in town for work.”

I have also dropped everything for my parents many times. I was in too much pain and devastated by so much rejection I didn’t eat that weekend. And nobody showed up on Monday. I didn’t hear from “K” again for a month when she texted and said, “Wanna go out?”

I texted back, “Still in pain. But if you wanna come over and just hang out with me I will order take out and we can watch a movie.” After that, there was no response for two months.

The same thing happened a couple more times that year and I haven’t heard from her since except the occasional E-vite to some “product” party and her daughter’s bridal shower.

And it has pretty much been the same type of thing with EVERY SINGLE FRIEND. You’re probably thinking, “Wow, if none of your friends talk to you anymore, you must have done something wrong.” And maybe so…but I don’t know what that would be. I always made a point to behave as a friend should. I do things for my friends. I don’t always talk about myself, in fact just the opposite. LBCP, I didn’t have a ton of drama and when I did, I rarely made it the topic of every discussion. We had fun together and I didn’t really ever have any fights or major misunderstandings with people.

What happened?

As of right now, the only people in my life are my husband and my sister and occasionally my daughter, however she is 19 and living her own life…. as she should. How do I go about making new friends when I can’t go out and have fun?

I feel I still have a lot to offer a friend: A listening ear and someone who will always have time for a friend since I can’t work. I am still funny and laugh and I try my hardest to stay somewhat active.

My time is mostly at home, but I am still me, If only in my head. I reached out to people for a long time making sure that I don’t put out a “poor me” vibe. I finally gave up. It seems that people don’t want to spend time with anyone anymore unless it includes some form of super fun entertainment.

I don’t know if I even want advice. I think what I want most of all is for people to see this and look at your friendships.

  • Is there someone who needs you?
  • Are you being a good friend to them like they were to you in your time of need?

Look around you. Maybe someone like me is waiting for your friendship.

Previously on The Friendship Blog:


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Comments (12)

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  1. Christine says:

    I’m 28 and have had chronic pain for most of my adult life. I went to college but quickly lost those friends after leaving school due to health and financial issues. My best friend has 3 kids and 3 step children and is very busy, so I don’t fault her for not seeing her very often. I’m recently separated and my husband was the only person I might see for months on end sometimes due to my illness keeping me from working or doing much socializing. My other best friend lives very far away and we are drifting apart as she is about to have twins. I’m not good at making new friends unless it’s online where other chronic pain patients are chatting, but I miss having someone to chat face to face with. Most people my age are launching careers, getting married, having babies, buying houses and I’ve been left in the dust as a young person on social security living in housing for the old and disabled. People get uncomfortable when I answer their questions about myself because I’ve been in a downward spiral. I’m tired of being lonely and only socializing with my thumbs (typing to folks on my phone online and on Facebook, etc). Volunteering is unrealistic for me. I’m lucky if I can go out to get groceries twice a week. I wish I had a better way to make friends locally. There aren’t any meet up groups for folks like myself nearby. Chronic pain has isolated me so much and I’m having a hard time dealing with it.

  2. FadeToGrey says:

    Yep, nothing like chronic illness to let you know who your real friends are! In my case, it turned out that I didn’t have any.

    It seems that, unless I can meet them in a restaurant for lunch (for example), they aren’t interested. They all constantly apologise for never emailing, citing how busy they are, but always seem to be free for a potential lunch date with me (that I’m not well enough to do). It would be really nice if they used the time that we would have spent in a restaurant to email me instead, but I think this is too boring for them.

    So instead I get two very brief emails a year from them, which usually say “great to hear you’re getting better” – which I’m not, and I’ve never said I am, so don’t know why they keep saying this – and “we must meet for lunch sometime”!!

    Despite sounding quite bitter here, I am always careful not to whine or complain, when I email them.

    The last statement in the original post above, asking people to look around them and see if their friends needed them, was beautiful.

  3. Hospice nurse says:

    I have a chronic terminal illness now.
    I’m going through the same thing.
    I have a new hurdle police hate. I have lost friends and family due to my husband’s job combined with my illness and my children’s illnesses. People just don’t want to give anything in return. They just wanna take. Story of my life. I spent my life helping others, now no one bothers to contact me.

  4. MightyB says:

    OMG. this has changed my perspective of my friendship. I believe the reason that got me to this page is gave me what I wanted to hear.
    Thanks for sharing

  5. Bizzy says:

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful thoughtful post. I try to be sensitive to situations like this, but this will make me more attune. I would just have one suggestion. Maybe keep trying with your friends? It could be that they are just not as thoughtful as they should be, or don’t really understand how much pain you are in. I used to know a girl (not well) who had to quit work at a young age because of horrible arthritis. She always wanted to talk on the phone, but not get together. I got frustrated with that and quit calling her. Now I realize I didn’t understand that she really was in pain and probably couldn’t get together. I wish I had been more understanding.

  6. Meorge says:

    I really relate to your post. I also have long term chronic health issues and prefer quality frienships over quantity. It is very hard for me to even go to work. While I am not shy at all, I tend to be introverted and would rather be pursuing thoughtful pursuits than shallow, talkative activities with people I don’t care for. This makes socializing more of a challenge for me. I would rather just “hang out” at home with a friend, rather than tear around and entertain someone. I don’t have the energy for that. I tend to be very emotionally invested in the friendships I do have and become very hurt and confused when I feel blown off. It seems like I am always the one making all the effort of maintaining contact, and other people always have more going on than I do. it gets really, really old, and I always end up just giving up. It shouldn’t be that hard to have a friend. The other person should want to be with you, too. It makes it worse that I am not in contact with any family members and do not wish to be, nor am I a member of any church group or related type of group. I don’t fit in with those belief systems. So when I am depressed or need support or am not well, which is a lot of the time, I am on my own. My main solace in life has been my pets. Without animals, I don’t know where I would be. They have been far more dependable and emotionally “there” for me than any people have ever been. The older I get, and I am in my 40s now, the gladder I am that I never married and never had children, as I never wished to. My parents are gone. Everyone else seems to be completely drained by their human families. At least I have my hobbies and pets.

  7. Camliann says:

    I have read what everyone has posted and I too can resonate. I have chronic bone pain due to cancer. I am on some heavy duty pain meds too. I am primarily home bound and all I have are my husband and kids. I am grateful for them but so desire a friendship with another woman that would be OK to just hang out and talk or watch a movie. My closest and only friend lives 1500 miles from me. I love her dearly and she has been so supportive. But all we can do is telephone contact and Skype. I totally get it! I too am 42 and I hate that I can hardly leave my house to socialize. I definitely miss my LBCP.

  8. Susan M. says:

    I am a bit saddened by what you have shared, perhaps because I can relate. I have a medical condition that requires me to plan ahead, as to what “big” activities I want to use my energy for on a given day. For instance, if I have done my (sedentary) volunteer work at the thrift store, that means I can’t come home and clean my bathroom, etc. You get the picture. If someone wants to invite me to go to a movie or an exhibit, that means I need to know a couple of days in advance. I have found that this puts new, potential friends off, and they don’t even realize it. That fact that I usually can’t go on the spur of the moment seems to be a sign to them that I am not worth the hassle. At least by their disappearing act! The second thought I immediately had to your situation is the following. I have noticed that, now a days, there often seems to be a “lava lamp” approach to being significant friends with someone. There never was a deep commitment to the friendship made by one of the parties. Meanwhile, the other party assumes that, since things seem just fine, that they are. Which they are. At that given point in time. There comes a point when the reciprocity is perceived as unbalanced; to one or the other, or both. Unless this perception changes, the person(s) feeling put upon fades away. They may feel too guilty to go into detail with you. They may just want to do what is less hassle for them. Ironically, I am also the person who has decided that I can not continue to be friends with someone I met a couple of years ago. I simply do not have available, the type of emotional strength she needs from me. I did many, many concrete things to help her, with her daunting life situation. I don’t regret it for a single second! I also very much enjoyed her company, and we had many laughs together. We lost touch for a few months, and she has recently contacted me, again. I just can not pick up the thread again. The fact that she is sending me links about her four, direct marketing efforts, when I have specifically asked her not to, unfortunately makes me feel I have made the right choice. in closing, I don’t want to hurt her feelings by telling her that I have all drama I can handle in my own life, and that she is just “too much” for me.

  9. Pam says:

    All I can say is bless you. I feel similarily in so many respects but for different reasons. I am grateful to be physically healthy but sure feel like I have taken a beating in so many ways from so many people who donot appreciate my values and traits.All that advice about talk to friends and family whenever you feel down or are struggling. If one even has any friends or relatives they seem to be the last to turn to. I have had to deal and cope with many kinds of challenges and have finally realized how alone I truly am and how little friends and family really want to have a close relationship with me. Fairweather stuff is fine, superficial ok, nosy , gossip fine.I have virtually turned into a recluse and it’s such a pity cause like you have so much to offer and give that nobody wants and nobody want to give me either. I am fed up with caring so much,TOO much about others. I don’t mean beign meddly. Occasionally I enjoy a compliment or nice gesture from a stranger. When I ask for compassion or help from my grown children they switch off. My elderly parents who live in another country have been supportive in some ways but adamantly refuse to discuss certain issues that have impacted our relationship which they blame ME for and also just want the lah di dah stuff. Breaks my heart that those supposedly close to me are the least concerned or involved. Needless to add, I had a husband once who was emotionally absent from the get go. It’s sad and very tough but hang on. I am glad at least I know how to feel emotions even when they hurt so badly. We’re not robots!

  10. Whitby says:

    Wow – did this resonate with my experience (and the experience of my closest friend). I know you don’t want advice (and I would never presume to offer it; I am no longer sure that advice of most kinds is helpful), but I hope you don’t mind a few comments. I suffer from chronic pain – though it is probably not as bad as your pain – and another chronic health condition – and like you, have discovered that other people (for the most part) just don’t want to deal. I especially noticed a falling-off when I gave up alcohol. A friend had a very similar experience. We were thinking the following. (a) many friendships are about convenience and fun – so when a lot of friendships take effort, lots of people bail. They don’t want the “obligation” of care. We’re stuck with our families (and often that includes spouses), and we have to work. For many people, friendship is (in Hegelian terms) within the realm of freedom; it’s what we can afford to give up when it takes work or our lives get too complicated. Of course, these folks often won’t admit this; they say stuff like, “I thought you needed to be left alone.”

    (b) I also wonder if often friendship is more like college tuition or a consumer good than not. You write that you have a lot to offer, that you would always have time for a friend. Perhaps this is really cynical, but maybe friendship for many is like tuition. What do I mean by that? Colleges often hesitate to decrease tuition because for many parents and students, a high price signifies high quality. The same thing often applies to consumer goods. In other words, we are often predisposed to value that which is hard to get (or expensive) over that which is easily available.

    Anyway, though I obviously do not know you, my experience, the experience of others in my life, and my reading lead me to think it’s probably not you – it’s them. And it is a very common story.

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