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On Friends, Old and New

Posted May 24 2011 12:06am
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"People come and go, and forget to close the door, and leave their stains and cigarette butts trampled on the floor, and when they do… Remember me, remember me"

-Brian Eno

There are several phrases that when heard or uttered can forever change the course of a life. "You're hired", "I'm in with love you", and "I do" are a few of the more common, all imbued with the power to positively alter one's destiny. On the flipside, there's a multitude of words that, when strung together, can have a negative, even dreadful impact. Those of us dealing with serious illness have all heard variations on the same devastating words streaming from a doctor's mouth, something along the lines of, "I'm afraid you have (insert name of illness here)". From the moment those syllables are comprehended, we are suddenly singled out, set apart from the world we inhabited just moments before, the land of the well.

No matter how loved or popular the recipient of such a diagnosis may be, they've now been forced into a new and alien social strata, that of the chronically ill, an exclusive club to which nobody wants to be a member. Though friends and family offer heartfelt and genuine gestures of comfort and sympathy, there is simply no way for them to truly understand the disorientation, fear, and alienation wrought by the verdict recently rendered. The newly minted patient, even if surrounded by a crowd, is left to navigate a frightening new reality in large part alone.

Make no mistake, the support of friends and family is vital to the mental and physical well-being of a newly diagnosed patient, but that moment of diagnosis does serve as a line of demarcation between an old reality that was very likely taken for granted and a new one fraught with uncertainty. This crisis point in a person's life can test old relationships, and unexpectedly offer opportunities to build new ones.

Over the course of a lifetime, there is a natural ebb and flow of individuals entering and exiting a person's world, an ever shifting population of friends and acquaintances that inevitably changes with the passage of time. A precious few of these people take up permanent residence in the timeline of life, and transcend friend to become family. True family is defined more by love than by blood, and I consider myself blessed to count among the innumerable persons I've encountered perhaps half a dozen who I know will be constants for the whole of my life. We may not be in perpetual contact, in fact we may not talk for months at a time, and perhaps not meet in person over stretches lasting years, but I am secure in the knowledge that when push comes to shove, no matter the situation, we'll always be able to pick up just where we left off, our bonds too strong to be broken by the strains of time, distance, or circumstance.

These rare relationships, some of which have spanned decades, are cherished and acknowledged as precious, for I realize they link me not only to people that I hold dear, but also represent a tangible connection to my own past, confirmation that what came before was not merely a dream, but a series of very real experiences that I was lucky enough to share with some special individuals. Though I've only been diagnosed for eight years, at times it's hard to remember a life without illness, a time when I was blissfully ignorant of most things medical. These friends turned family, who are of course deeply sympathetic to and aware of my difficulties, look straight past the fact of my illness to the essence of who I am. To them I will always be the same old Marc, and for that I am forever grateful.

Other friendships from my healthy life have been diminished by my illness, really at no fault of the people involved. Many friendships thrive primarily on a continuing series of shared social experiences, and as my disabilities have mounted and my ability to socialize has become curtailed, the spigot that fueled many of these relationships has been turned off. Phone calls and e-mails are still occasionally exchanged, and halfhearted motions are made at making plans to get together, but they almost never actually come to fruition. That's okay, really, as without an ongoing narrative, some relationships are bound to simply stall, and eventually wither. It's all part of the rhythm of life, the natural order of things.

In this age of the Internet and social networking, it's now quite common to reestablish connections with folks who once populated your world, but were long ago got lost to the ever shifting tides of time. I've found that most of these renewed friendships at first burn brightly with shared memories and updates on current circumstances, but once that initial flame is exhausted, they again recede into a state of benign neglect. A few, though, have turned out to be very happy and lasting reunions, with people for whom I never really lost affection, but only lost touch. It is a real joy to rediscover a misplaced but valued friend, like unearthing a buried treasure.

In all honesty, though, my illness has made me somewhat reticent to pursue some of these Facebook friendships, as I sometimes think I'd rather be remembered as the youthful and healthy me locked in my old friend's memories, and recounting the details of life since my diagnosis hardly makes for a lighthearted exchange of pleasantries. Perhaps this accounts for my almost phobic relationship with Facebook, which I suppose it's time I should just get over. I'm completely open about my illness with the world at large, after all, but somehow the prospect of detailing my saga to certain individuals remains daunting. Though I feel I've handled the emotional upheaval attached to illness quite well, I suppose the pain of my reality lies not too deeply beneath my Wheelchair Kamikaze persona.

Despite the love and support of family and trusted old friends, it's been incredibly important for me to develop relationships with fellow patients, others who simply "get it". As kind and sympathetic as the well people close to us might be, they just haven't lived the situation, and thus don't have the capacity to fully gauge the true measure of being chronically and progressively ill. It's like trying to get a blind man to understand the difference between blue and orange, the complexities are beyond words.

I can't imagine how difficult it must've been for patients dealing with chronic illnesses before the advent of the Internet, how isolated and alone so many must have felt. Soon after my diagnosis I discovered some of the Internet MS forums, and in them found a haven where was able to interact with others dealing with many of the same questions, fears, and emotions that were roiling inside of me. I derived incredible comfort and relief in these virtual worlds, populated by so many who had gone through situations similar to those that now confronted me.

I initially ventured onto these forums seeking only information, never imagining that I might find real friendship in the coldness of the words of strangers on my computer screen. But soon the anonymous screen names of those participating took on the characteristics of the living, breathing human beings behind them, and the catharsis of being able to commune with fellow patients was incredibly therapeutic. Before long it felt like some of my best friends were people I'd never actually met or even talked to. When I did eventually have the opportunity to meet some forum members in person it often felt as if we'd known each other for years, unencumbered by the awkwardness of unfamiliarity that usually accompanies first encounters.

Of course, not every MS patient is going to become a close friend, but I found that the shared emotions of dealing with a serious diagnosis can often strip away much of the artifice and posturing that goes on in every day social interactions, and patient to patient we can often cut right to the chase and dispense with most of the meaningless trivialities that get in the way of establishing the bonds of true friendship. I've developed heartfelt relationships with people I might not otherwise have interacted with, folks in locations and with backgrounds that I might never have crossed paths with or given a chance to without the unfortunate commonality of a shared disease.

When eventually we take our leave of this earth, as we all must, the friends we've made and the people we've touched are perhaps the truest measure of the lives we've led. Despite the hardships imposed by disease, and the impersonal nature of the medical world we've been forced to inhabit, we must never lose sight of our essential humanity, and relish and take joy in our close friends, old and new. Even in this high-tech world of instant messaging, Facebook, and tweets, a pat on the back, some gentle words of kindness, and an earnest gesture of support still convey that most important of human sentiments, genuine affection for those we are lucky enough to call friends.

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