Sweating Through It: Talking about Chronic Illness with Someone New

The worst thing about making new friends is explaining my life. It starts early with simple questions like “How many classes are you taking?” I can see the confusion when my answers don’t line up with expectations. Subconsciously, my potential friend has a vision of me already formed–not the specifics, but a general outline. And in that general outline, I am healthy. I hate the moment that vision goes away. I hate that I have to explain it away.

“Wait. So like, what do you do? I mean, if you’re only part time and you don’t work?”

I don’t know how to answer that question. Still. After dozens of attempts, I’m not sure I’ve ever answered in a way that makes any sense. Probably because I still don’t know what I do with my time. Rest? Stare into space? Worry about answering that question? Eventually, I give them the whole run-down, the “chronic fatigue syndrome/life story” starter conversation. Sick at 12. Bunch of doctors. Tutors at home. Not enough research. No treatment. No cure. Yada yada. That whole spiel.

Honestly, I still sweat through that first conversation. I try to treat it as nonchalantly as I can. I’m simply relaying information because someone asked a question. But it doesn’t feel that easy. And I worry that it’s heavy. I feel like they asked about the weather outside and I told them about the worst storm in local history–surprising, confusing, and unnecessarily depressing.  It’s difficult to tell when to get into the details and when to just smile and let them wonder.

Yesterday, I stopped a few of my fellow students outside the football stadium to ask them questions about tailgating for a piece in the yearbook. Coincidentally, two of those students were from small towns near mine, and wanted to chat about the local community college and who I knew from high school. Except I don’t know people from high school. Because I, you know, didn’t go. Maybe I should just say I was home-schooled; it’s less confusing and doesn’t generally invite follow-up questions. But I’m do this thing with my life where I try to be honest, to the best of my ability. So I make things awkward with strangers on principle.

“Wait. What does that mean, you didn’t go to high school?”

“Uh, well, do you want my whole life story? That was the simple answer.”

“Yeah, give us your life story, because the simple answer is confusing.”

So I didn’t give them the whole scripted explanation, but I told them I got sick. Somehow that always feels personal. It’s an event in my life. I was born. I did things. I went places. I got sick. It shouldn’t be hard to say. It shouldn’t feel like a secret. I’m not confessing. But I sweat like I’m confessing when I say “I have chronic fatigue syndrome.”

I fear dismissive reactions. It’s disheartening to have to convince someone that my condition is actually a big deal. I’m scared that people don’t think it is. I’m scared they suspect I’m just weak. That fear will make you sweat. But most people don’t react that way. Most people are nice and try to understand. So why am I ashamed? Why do I feel like I’m admitting a personal failing?

I don’t want to let go of that vision a potential friend might have of me, the general outline in which I am healthy. I like that image. It’s not even mine, but I don’t want to change it. I want to seem that way for as long as possible. I want to be that for real. But I’m not that. And if I want to have conversations in which I talk about my life, I have to talk about being sick. It touches every part of my life. It is my life.

That first conversation may always be an anxious occasion for me. I may never be comfortable ripping a hole through a person’s outline assumptions of a healthy me. But that first conversation is only one, and in my experience, it’s usually not the last one. The next conversation–when my potential friend (or maybe actual friend, at this point) feels comfortable enough to ask me questions, to get to know what my life is really like–is usually better. And the ones after that–when they get your dark jokes and know your migraine triggers almost as well as you do–are sometimes, maybe even mostly, good. You won’t know who is capable of those good conversations unless you wade through that first one.

The best part about making new friends is obviously the people themselves. And I want more people. People who can get it, if I explain it a little bit first, are ones I want around. So I keep having that first conversation, even with strangers I’m just trying to interview for the yearbook. Maybe the more I do it, the easier it will be. Hopefully, someday it won’t feel like a confession, but more like a statement of fact or even revealing something fascinating about me. Until then, I’ll sweat through it.

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