Last week I saw my primary care doctor for my annual exam. At the end of the visit, he brought up the fact that I was on disability. He said that only 5% of people ever manage to get off of disability benefits. He said that it was important to find activities to keep busy and productive. Then he talked about the isolation that can come when you don’t have a job to get you out of the house, and you don’t feel up to going out a lot. He said it was important to have community, and it’s important to make an effort to create that community.
He’s so right. (And I love that he’s having this conversation with his patients!)
I assured him that I have community. If he only knew.
I have worked hard to make friends and build community. It doesn’t come easily or naturally to me. I’m an introvert by nature, and my health issues have made me even more of an introvert. Not being able to go out often doesn’t help either. But it’s important to me to have friends and community in my life, so I made it happen.
For me, the key has been to go for quality instead of quantity. I don’t have hundreds of friends, but the ones I have are good ones. Acquaintances are often happy to help me because they see me helping others.
That’s why when I needed to borrow a wheelchair recently, I had 3 offers to lend me one, plus 2 other folks suggested local organizations that lend out medical equipment for free. When I needed someone to push that wheelchair, I was able to post on Facebook and get some offers from friends and also from acquaintances I barely know. Because I have that community.
Sometimes it’s hard. I put myself out there, which means I’m often asked for help and I need to say no. Thankfully, most people understand my limitations. And they appreciate it all the more when I volunteer. A friend is going out of town and leaving her dog at home, with the dog walker coming by many times each day to walk him. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best they can do. I said that if she gives me her key (which I am getting today), I’ll pop in to visit him a couple times, just so he has someone to cuddle with. She was amazed. To me, this is just a nice thing to do for a friend. I won’t go by every day, but on the days I’m in the neighborhood, I’ll bring a book and read while her dog gets some important snuggles. It won’t be the first time I’ve done this for a traveling friend. (And let’s be honest, while it’s an inconvenience, I certainly won’t hate doggie snuggles!)
I belong to a chronic pain support group. Having people who really understand the struggle makes such a difference. It was one of those members who ultimately lent me her wheelchair, and even put it in the car for me because I couldn’t. I do a lot for that group, too. I created and run a Facebook group so we can communicate easily between meetings. I do other behind-the-scenes tasks, too. It doesn’t take much time, but it helps people. And they notice, and want to help me in return.
It’s so easy to become self-involved these days, and more so if you’re in pain or fatigued or dealing with other symptoms all day every day. Believe me, I know. And so many people lose their friends and their families when they become sick. So I am hugely grateful for the incredible people in my life. My parents and other relatives are super supportive, my childhood friends have stood by me and help when they can, and newer friends are ready to step up and help. Acquaintances do more than I would have expected. Even strangers offer to help, thanks to all of my work in the chronic illness community online (both this anonymous blog and a lot of work under my real name.) I am so fortunate that I began building that community long before I needed it, and that I still have it.
I think we all need to heed my doctor’s words and find a way to build community. It will look different for everyone. Some people will reach out to friends, others will go to events through meetup.com (I’ve built some great community that way, too!) and others will do it all online. Whatever it looks like for you, I hope you are able to build the community that you need and that will support you, just as you will support them whenever you can.
What about you? How do you build community? Please share in the comments so we can learn from each other!