The Friendship Doctor

Send in your friendship questions and quandaries and get expert answers and solutions

Friendship: In Sickness and Health

Sometimes friends can't cope with being there for us.

QUESTION 

Dear Dr. Levine,

I was close friends with a woman for several years. Six months ago, she abruptly ended the friendship. Two months prior to the end of the friendship, I was going through cancer radiation treatments and could not devote the time and energy to her that she seemed to need to feel satisfied with the friendship.

A few weeks before my treatment began, she suddenly claimed she was having severe recurrent flashbacks/memories of an abusive period in her childhood. I tried my best to be patient with her whenever she wished to discuss her psychological state, but it was very difficult for me to be attentive because of my own physical condition. 

At one point, she asked me to stop talking to her about my cancer treatments in any way because she was in a fragile emotional state and was not in a position to be supportive to me at all. I was very disappointed, but continued to do what I could to try and support her anyway since her mental state did, in fact, seem to be deteriorating. 

In the weeks that followed, our conversations become very strained. I felt I couldn't talk to her about my treatment, and whenever I tried to talk with her about what she was going through, she did not seem to want to discuss it. Our last conversation was very upsetting. She told me that it was impossible for me to understand her severe emotional upset in any way and that I might as well not even try.

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Additionally she told me that I was 'lucky' to have cancer since once my treatments were over, I could heal and move on but her abusive memories were something that no time could ever heal. I was deeply offended by her remarks and when I attempted to discuss my feelings with her, she told me I was self absorbed, hung up the phone and discontinued all contact with me, except for a single text in

which she wrote that the way I spoke to her when I was frustrated about my treatments and/or my life reminded her of a past abuser and caused her to have even more negative flashbacks.

Since that time, I have heard through our mutual friends that she thought I was very selfish and cruel for expecting her to be supportive while I was going through treatments, because she herself was so sick. I confess I am not sure what to think about it. The relationship is so strained that we have not even been able to say hello to one another in public. I have considered writing to her or calling her to gain closure, or as a gesture of goodwill but I do not want to open any old wounds unnecessarily if the friendship is not worth saving. 

What are the boundaries when both friends are struggling and have nothing to give to one another? Is it best to just move on from this? Were my expectations in fact too high? Were hers? I would genuinely appreciate any advice you could give me on the subject.

Thanks,
Sheryl

 

ANSWER

Dear Sheryl,

A diagnosis of a serious or life-threatening illness is likely to make anyone feel vulnerable and it's normal to turn to others for support. Surely, your diagnosis and treatment must have been a very challenging period in your life. 

Your friend seems to have been dealing with some serious emotional problems at the same time as you were struggling to cope with your own illness and its treatment. It had to be disappointing that your friend was emotionally unavailable, and couldn't be more empathetic and supportive when you needed her. Her comments comparing her illness to yours and telling you that you were "lucky" were very insensitive but it sounds like she was under terrible stress. 

The timing of all of this was unfortunate in terms of your inability to be there for each other. If you weren't experiencing health problems, you may have been more patient and understanding of your friend. Conversely, if your friend wasn't experiencing traumatic flashbacks, she may have been more understanding and supportive of you. 

Since this friendship was a meaningful one to you before this disappointment, my suggestion would be to send your friend a short note. Say something like, "I'm so sorry we were unable to be there for each other but I realize we were both experiencing enormous stress and turmoil in our lives. I'm feeling stronger now and I hope you are feeling better, too. Our friendship has meant a lot to me in the past and I hope that we will be able to reconnect in the future." 

This will give you some sense of closure because you will be doing the right thing in terms of being supportive of someone you care about. You will have also conveyed your disappointment about the past—yet you'll be leaving the door open in case your friend is able to think about what happened more clearly now as you do. Even if she doesn't respond in kind, it will allow you to greet her cordially, having your feelings out in the open, and this should also allow you to feel more comfortable among mutual friends. 

I hope your recovery is progressing nicely and wish you the best of health.

Warm regards, Irene

 

P.S. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week.  Check out this wonderful infographic from the National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare. Coincidentally, it is also Breast Cancer Awareness Month:-) 

Here are a some posts on The Friendship Blog about cancer and friendship:

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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