I just read a beautiful essay in the New York Times. The essay, Coping With Crises Close to Someone Else’s Heart, chronicles an especially tough year in the writer’s life, and how many of her friends simply disappeared during that time. She explains the reason: that people are so terrified when confronted with bad things that they distance themselves. They don’t want to deal with the fact that bad things could happen to anyone at any time. From the essay:
“Dr. Rainer describes this kind of distancing as “stiff-arming” — creating as much space as possible from the possibility of trauma. It’s magical thinking in the service of denial: If bad things are happening to you and I stay away from you, then I’ll be safe.”
They are not bad friends. They are terrified and coping the way they know how. Some people feel helpless, and can’t deal with that feeling, either.
I know this feeling. Five years ago one of my best friends got a terrible diagnosis for her husband. He had cancer. Not a good cancer (is there really such a thing?), but an incurable cancer with a terrible prognosis. Our kids were 20 months old. As one of her best friends I was with her the entire time — physically. Emotionally, I can only say it was 50-50.
When she first got the diagnosis in June 2005 we spent hours and hours on the phone. She cried. She questioned. She stormed. During that time, even though I was sitting there on the phone I was slowly — mentally — moving away. Her trauma was pushing all my crazy buttons. (She’ll be a widow at 35 — like my mom! Her then 5-year-old daughter will have no dad — like me! Her youngest will never know his dad — like my sister!) In the beginning, she never knew. I was able to hide it by staying and listening and getting involved in other ways.
I did everything in my power, physically, to help her. I threw a second birthday party for her son in my backyard. (She couldn’t fathom having a celebration when her world was falling apart.) I kept her kids whenever her mother couldn’t. I organized a dinner drop off. I collected money for a cleaning lady. I provided news and updates to other friends, encouraging them to call her. I took her out whenever possible. I found stuff that she needed — snow boots, for example, when her daughter outgrew the ones she had. I introduced her to the local Mother’s Center, which became an excellent resource for her.
I sound like a great friend, right? Yeah, not so much. The stress of her stress was like an anchor around my neck. I felt like I was drowning. I started compartmentalizing my life. The first order of business: I didn’t want to invite her to playdates. I decided that I didn’t want her to come to the smaller playgroup I had that was a subset of our bigger 11-person playgroup. I didn’t want to hear about the cancer. I wanted to forget that life is fragile and scary. So when she would ask what I was doing, I never lied, but I didn’t invite her.
Yes, physically, I was there for her. I held the phone and listened to her cry. Emotionally, though, I was trying to get away whenever I could. I was so angry. For her, at her, at others.
Case in point: One of our friends, my friend’s long-time other best friend — let’s call her Jane — was also distancing herself. Jane had her own issues (alcoholic family members) that made her check out, too. She didn’t offer to help. She didn’t want to listen to my friend cry. One time Jane said something to the effect that her husband had broken his ankle and no one was there for her. I ended up battling Jane, who had been one of my good friends. I wrote a scathing letter about her selfishness, and as a result, severed the ties between us completely. I can look back now and see that I was chastising Jane for my own lack of empathy, my own fear. I was mad at myself so I judged Jane and convicted her, throwing her out of my life. Jane was doing what I wanted to do — she was walking away from all the pain and suffering. She was protecting herself. Instead of understanding, I was jealous and indignant and sad all at the same time. That is a relationship loss that I regret to this day. I am so sorry I was so immature and judgmental.
My friendship stayed intact with my other friend, though, despite my behavior. We made it through that terrible period. My husband’s friend went into remission. After some time I actually apologized to my friend. Yes, I was a good friend to her, but I was also a bad friend, too. I told her how sorry I was that I tried to exclude her from our playdates. How sorry I was about some of the things I said. (Probably not a good idea to tell someone dealing with cancer that you’re sick of hearing about cancer.) I told her how silly and childish I was. I told her that I loved her and that I would always be there for her. And now, as her husband is once again out of remission at the same time her mother was just diagnosed with ovarian cancer, I am hoping that I can be there for her without being so afraid. I’m hoping I will remember that her pain and suffering isn’t catching. I’m hoping I can be a good friend.