What is the appropriate amount of time to wait before telling your best friend that you have a debilitating illness that might end your life? Or that your boyfriend dumped you, or a million other things that happen to normal people every day – without coming across as a desperate-pathetic-attention-seeking loser? Or what is the appropriate amount of time to wait to tell without her hating you for not telling sooner, or later whichever is better/worse, without coming across as a hardass who doesn’t need anyone when dealing with trauma? Is there a middle ground, or is it a case of either or?
The following is fictionalised.
“You look amazing?” my friend said to me as we tried outfits for a night out. “What’s your secret?” she continued. She was referring to my now concave stomach that once hung over my crotch.
“Stress.” I said and laughed. She joined in the laughter, not knowing I was not joking. In the last few months weight had been falling off my body even though my eating habits hadn’t changed. My skin looked and felt weird and lighter than normal even though I had not bleached. Sometimes I experienced severe pains all over my body and/or experienced unexplained dizziness. But because I was light skinned and skinny and therefore ideal according to societal expectations, everyone admired me and inquired relentlessly as to my secret. Deep down I knew whatever was happening to me, was not natural and it scared the hell out of me. However, I was not about to argue with anyone. So, all inquisitions were replied with a smile and one-word sentences. It didn’t help that a voice in my head, constantly reminded me of my mother’s dying words – “not everyone who calls themselves a friend is a friend – choose them wisely!”
The truth was I’d been undergoing tests because my doctor suspected something was happening in and to my body. I didn’t want to tell anyone (not yet) – to worry them unnecessarily – and because I didn’t know what I would tell anyone anyway. Unless I had to make arrangements for that all-important pearly gates grand entrance, I planned to keep it to myself.
Most importantly I couldn’t tell this particular friend because a few years ago when my mother died and I became depressed and suicidal, she dropped me like a hot metal rod because I didn’t tell her early enough for her to be of any help. According to her, I told her when it was too late for her to help and that was not acceptable as per the (her) sacred code of friendship. I should have gone to her for help. She was angry at me for months. She had been exceptionally helpful, kind and there for me during my mother’s illness and subsequent death, I didn’t think it would be fair to burden her with the aftermath – obviously I was wrong.
I met my friend in high school – we were brought together by fate. We were both only children of single mothers who’d been ostracised from church; we were both academically bright and that was how we ended up in a prestigious catholic school for girls in Kenya; we were both strong willed and stood our grounds even when the church wouldn’t grant us holy communion and confirmation because we were fatherless: we threatened to walk out into the nearest school- they let us stay to keep the school profile high for those important sponsors. We bonded over shared stories of fighting off numerous father figures who masqueraded as mother’s boyfriend for easy access. However, after school our lives took different directions – while hers was high achiever man eater with a body to die for, I was the mediocre fat girl with a hot friend. Our friendship remained steadfast despite various obstacles.
We moved to London around the same time (stories for another day), but in a nutshell we were chosen to attend a special seminar on ‘Becoming a Nun’, in Ireland. The next day we took a walk and never returned. Our friendship remained strong over the years and within that time my friend met the man of her life, moved in with him, got engaged, planned a wedding then it all went to hell and she came to live with me. I indulged her with whatever she needed to get over this man – drank copious amounts of alcohol, watched reruns of her favourite shows, spent whole weekend in bed, ordered Chinese takeaways, listened as she talked crap about that loser, let her cry on my shoulder literally, wiped off drool, reassured her even when she told me I wouldn’t understand how she felt because I’d never been in a long term serious relationship or in love… sob sob…. sob. I was determined to get her through it. Six months later she was her usual self, albeit with a slightly bruised ego and reputation.
We ritualised our renewed friendship by going on a singles cruise around Europe, and life went back to normal.
My problem started a few months later – I was exhausted, hungry all the time and short tempered. I’d lost weight and my skin lightened. Sometimes I got headaches and back pains. I was depressed more than usual. My periods did a runner and since I wasn’t sexually active, I knew I wasn’t pregnant – so I enjoyed the period-free months. I googled everything I experienced – the results were so grim I decided to stop.
I considered seeing a private doctor but, in the end, decided to wait on the NHS for when they were ready. The upside to this was that I enjoyed being size 10 for the first time since I was ten. In my damn mind I thought if I died at least I’d get a normal coffin.
While I put all my energy into finding out what was wrong with me, my friend swiftly moved on. She met a new man and told me I had to help her keep him on his toes. Unlike her last relationship, she wanted this man to know she had a life independent of him, she had friends independent of his, and she made it clear to me that I had to make that happen because we both knew it was not entirely true. She had given herself completely to her last relationship such that when it ended, she almost died, “that will never happen again!” she exclaimed once she was done explaining my duties and responsibilities in her new relationship. I agreed fully. Several weeks went by and we went on many imaginary spa weekends away, wine tasting and girls’ trips but the whole time we were holed up in my flat watching back to back episodes of scandal with our phones on plane mode. It worked for a while because the man was convinced his girlfriend had a full-on life away from him.
The downside to this was that he became relentless in showering her with attention, gifts, trips, introducing her to his friends and family and she drifted away from me. Eventually we only saw each other briefly once every blue moon. The other downside was that my health deteriorated, and she was not there to witness or ask questions. They were falling in love as I was falling seriously ill. Every so often I’d call, or she’d call, and our conversation would last less than a minute every time because they were always doing something. I felt some pangs of jealousy but was relieved because then I wouldn’t have to explain why my make-up was always over the top, or why I stuffed my bra or why I looked sickly.
When they organised a summer party, I went later than everyone else because I couldn’t face people in broad summer daylight.
“You okay?” she’d asked one time when she saw me covered in so much makeup, I looked like that Nigerian bride who broke the internet.
“Yes I am.” I then asked a question about the boyfriend and the party. My friend was very egocentric and sometimes when she hugged or kissed you, she’d be looking elsewhere. If she asked you how you were, she never listened to your answer. If you asked about her, she’d give you a detailed account of everything from dreams to how many tampons she used on her last period. Whenever I wanted to avoid talking about me, I’d simply ask her an obscure question about anything in her life, and I’d soon be forgotten. At that point anyway I’d decided to cut everyone out of my life. If I died in my sleep the local council would deal with my body. My few friends would be pissed off, but I wouldn’t be there to answer any questions. This friend would probably curse at my grave but still I wouldn’t answer – I’d be probably sipping sweet wine with mum and Jesus and blessing her.
It goes without saying that my self-directed isolation didn’t go down well, and since I wasn’t available to anyone, most people gave up and stopped contacting me. One of my other fiends left an open-ended message ‘I pray you are well…. you know where I am if you need me.’ My friend’s message was insane… ‘girl, you better stay where you are coz when I see you next, I’ll be despatching you to meet your maker!! Why the fucking silence?’ Then I never heard from her for months. In that time, I was diagnosed with lupus. The doctors assured me it was not fatal and while the are no known cures, symptoms can be controlled. The worst part was that my symptoms would mimic other illnesses making it harder to treat. All I heard was … not fatal…. can control symptoms… and I knew I would be ok.
Much later, I emailed my friend to break the ice and asked her to dinner so I could explain my silence. She didn’t reply for days and when she did, she told me she was getting married and that I could attend if I wanted… and “you don’t have to.” She said nothing about meeting me. Another few days passed then she texted me and said we could meet somewhere in Oxford street where she was having a dress fitting. I couldn’t believe it – I wanted a one to one sit down, not a champagne sipping affair in some expensive shop talking bridal gowns. I agreed but I was not happy. In the months leading up to my diagnose I had made a conscious decision to confront my friend about her selfishness.
I met her and she looked great. She said I looked good though she was absent minded when she said it. I could tell.
“How’ve you been.” She said as she kissed me on both cheeks.
“I’ve been dying.” I said with no irony whatsoever.
“What?” But before I could answer. “By the way, you will be my maid of honour, ok? You are still my best friend even though you dumped me.”
Let’s just say….. I couldn’t believe my fucking ears. What? I followed her around the Oxford street shop as she tried on different gowns, and yes, we sipped champagne. In the end I decided not to lay it on her just yet…. She was too happy. I decided to let her ‘enjoy getting ready to be married’. She never asked me what I wanted to talk about or where the hell I’d been.
I was very angry with her. Angry that she didn’t seek me out. Angry that when I needed her most, she wasn’t there. Angry that when I wanted to talk she had no time. Angry that she didn’t see the signs. But then again maybe it was my fault because I never opened up to her in the first place. Maybe I assumed too much that if I could tell when she was in turmoil without her saying anything, that she should have been able to do the same for me. I assumed that she could see I was not well. But the question remains…. Why? Was it because it was not happening to her? Was it because I thought I was too strong to need someone? Was it pride or arrogance?
For now, I intend to throw her a bridal shower out of this world, and then when the honeymoon is over, I will lay into her….. hard.