In thinking on vulnerability and isolation I have asked my friend Bethan to write a guest post on her own experiences…
Jules has kindly asked me to contribute to her blog, and to be honest I could write an essay here, such is the extent that her recent experiences resonate with me.
A little background history on me – I have Fibromyalgia and M.E. Living with these conditions over eleven years, I have lost a career, found a new career, lost friendships, made new friendships, and found God (or He has found me!) I have used a wheelchair on and off for years, and for just under a year I have been completely dependent on it. The current prognosis isn’t great in mobility terms, but I have had two huge healings in the past, the belief that I am living with the promise of further healing, and the firm knowledge that the Lord’s prognosis is the only one that really matters.
In May this year, I was struck down by a nasty episode that had me in hospital for a few hours, on my back on the sofa for several weeks, and prevented me from getting to my ‘normal’ activities, including church on Sundays. We are created to be in relationship with others, and friendship has enormous value both during times of joy and times of trial. At every point in my Christian life, the Lord has blessed me with wonderful friendships, whether short term or long term. It presents a challenge, though, that friendships change when you become ill, and still more when you become housebound. Some of the people that you are closest to are just not there – for various reasons, and not always bad ones. I have some friends where our contact has always involved me visiting them, at their homes. It seems inevitable that those friendships have lost some of the intimacy that they once had. Other friendships diminish because we tend to become close to those people that we see regularly in social situations – and if those are minimal, I suspect we just go ‘off the radar’ for many people whom we would have considered friends.
For me, in May, there was the added complication that I wasn’t well enough for visitors for a while. Some people were still there when I was, others weren’t. And yet new friendships develop, particularly with those who try to devote time to visiting the sick. A couple of people have surprised me by their devotion to our friendship when the onus is on them to make the effort to visit. History tells me that there’s a chance those friendships may diminish as and when the Lord heals again – as there are ‘fair weather friends,’ there are also ‘foul weather friends’. Life shifts. I always invest in friendships, and so find it really hard to deal with when people who were once my friends pull away. I also fear, when friendships end, that it is down to something I have said or done wrong, and this can lead to a lot of self-criticism. However the Lord is growing me in these areas – showing me that, where people leave, space is opened up for new relationships; helping me to repent of the times when I have been a less-than-ideal friend; and, in his mercy, rebuilding friendships where they are God-ordained. Isolation can be a big thing.
After several weeks of only seeing one or two people a day, my naturally extrovert personality had become very withdrawn, to the extent that when we came to my first big ‘social outing’ – a church family member’s birthday in a local pub – I sat in the car in tears because the thought of going in and being in the same room as ‘that many people’ was terrifying. It took all the persuasion of the loving husband, who could thankfully see how important it was that I did it, to get me in there. As Jules has said in a previous post, it’s a huge change to go from being out and seeing people every day (as I was before the hospital episode, albeit wheelchair bound) to being alone in the house most of the time, in pain and a little bit scared. I have frequently described myself as ‘an extrovert with M.E’ – people with M.E often struggle in social situations because of the over-stimulus. I struggle with that sometimes. But illness aside, I am a true extrovert and get my energy from being around people, so a few days alone in the house (often sofa- or bed-bound, so without even the distraction of household tasks) can leave me exhausted and tearful. I would find myself longing for a friend to just stop by unexpectedly – my hopes soared when I heard a car slowing outside, and fell time and again as they didn’t pull into my drive.
Don’t get me wrong, there were some wonderful friends who came, and one amazing woman in particular who was, and still is, there for me on the phone frequently, and at all sorts of antisocial times, but there were also many of those long lonely hours. I think it just doesn’t take very long lying by yourself before fear and worry creep in, and it is somehow difficult to be content with ‘just’ you and the Lord in such a situation. Oh, the number of times this year that I’ve had that thought, and shaken my head at the ludicrousness of it, when I should know that He is all that my soul needs! And, oh, the longing for that moment when we meet Him face to face and fully realise that!
What has happened over this year, as a consequence of all this, is that I’ve begun to depend less on having humans around me and to depend more on the Lord, who will never leave me nor forsake me. He blesses us with different friendships for different phases of life, all of which are very valuable, but our most valuable relationship is that with our Heavenly Father, and he wants us to be clear on this point. And so I’m looking back on the year as we approach the end of it and, in many ways, thinking what an awesome year it’s been. My prayer over the course of the year has been to find Paul’s level of ‘contentment in all circumstances’ (Philippians 4:12) whether wonderfully well or scarily ill, whether surrounded by friends or lonely – for my soul to rest content in the arms of my Father. I’m not there yet, but the most precious friendships this year have been the ones that bring me right back to that prayer – that point me to God’s word and remind me that I’m never alone.