Cancer log 195: How Cancer Made Me Lose All My Friends

Not really. But kind of? Almost?

I was diagnosed in February 2015, and treatment ended in October 2016. When I was diagnosed, people rallied round — family, close friends, casual friends and acquaintances, strangers. I live a very public life, and one consequence was that I was lucky enough to have a ton of support, which was, frankly, priceless. Cancer would’ve been a much more miserable experience without it.

But I’ve slowly figured out something about myself in the last decades. (Maybe if I were in regular therapy I would have figured it out sooner and saved myself some grief?) When I’m having a really hard time, for whatever reason, I retreat. I turtle. I pull back from as much of the world as possible, go pretty silent about anything important, and hide until I feel better. Which can be months. And it’s not obvious to me or to others, because I have little trouble maintaining superficial connections — posting blog entries or chatting on FB. The volume might go down a bit from normal, but the normal volume is so high that people don’t notice that.

So the weird effect of it is that I’m miserable, I’m dealing with it by retreating to heal and reset, but my close friends and family don’t feel that — what they feel is that I’ve withdrawn, intensely, from them. And if they know what’s going on with me, that’s hard, because they want to be helpful. And sometimes they don’t know what’s going on with me, and that’s harder, because it probably seems inexplicable, and they often take it personally. From their point of view, I’ve pulled back specifically from them — gone silent, stopped taking phone calls, etc. It’s not so visible that I’ve pulled back from the world.

It happened a few times before cancer. The first time I can pinpoint was in a poly situation, when I was super-stressed by the relationship dynamics, and I pulled back from both of them. As she put it at the time, ‘it was as if the sun had gone out.’ The romantic relationships didn’t survive, but I’m still friends with her, thankfully. Time helps. I think another friendship ended because Kevin and I had broken up, I was shattered, but I completely failed to articulate that, and a friend thought it was a problem with how I felt about her. I’m still sad about that one, though we’ve come back to friendly, at least.

And all my close friends and family held on through the first year of cancer, but by the end of that year, cracks were starting to show. People started expressing to me that they felt unloved. Sometimes pretty forcefully, after a long time holding it in and trying to endure and wait for things to get better on their own because, y’know, cancer. When you don’t return phone calls for months on end, it hurts people.

I think social media really masked that from my end, too, because I felt like I was being super-social, spending time with all these people. The campaigning aggravated that too — I met *so* many people, cool and interesting and friendly people whom I’d like to get to know better, that my friendship buffer kind of filled up? And I somehow didn’t notice how little I was engaging with old friends and family, some of whom were going through their own hard things.

So I’m in this period right now when I’m trying to slow the hell down, and repair some relationships that were pushed to the breaking point. Stupid cancer. I can blame cancer for that, right? At least a little? It’s much easier than admitting to character flaws…

I think the relationships are mostly going to be all right, although I should still call people more often, and visit if I can. The attenuated ‘presence’ of social media has its own value, but it’s just not the same.

Two other, only sort-of related thoughts. I was noticing this past weekend (high-stress weekend) that I desperately wanted a bath. I am not actually a bath person, but when things are hard in my life, suddenly I become one — all through both pregnancies and through cancer, I was taking frequent baths. I’ve started to think of it like the canary in the coal mine — when I start taking a lot of baths, something is probably wrong, and I should slow down and try to address it.

Similarly, when I’m happy, I sing. I sing all the time, in the car, doing chores, whatever. I have a vast repertoire of show tunes, etc. When I stop singing, it’s a good sign that something is wrong, and there’s been very little singing in my life, the last three years. I’m still trying to reset after cancer, I think, come back to myself. Getting there.

Self-knowledge is hard. But valuable. Communication skills, ditto.

“Make new friends, but keep the old;
The one is silver, the other gold.”

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