So. This week has decided not to behave itself and I didn’t realise quite how time was getting on. But I’m here now, with a cup of tea (green tea and cranberry, as it happens), suitably yummy things within reach and Laurena Segura playing in the background.
“I’d love to hear about your experiences as a couple building friendships outside your relationship, in light of the particular challenges that your husband’s situation can provide in terms of relationship building. (Does that make sense? Said entirely without whatever negative/judgmental nuance might be afforded those words. I just mean – because of stigmas, because of ups and downs, because of the extra work you both have to put into his care; how does that affect and color your friendships with other people, both individually and as a couple?)” – Meghan (Caregiving: A Quickie)
The more I thought about this, the more I began to realise how friendships have been affected by Mr. Juniper’s condition and my caregiving. Affected doesn’t necessarily have to be negative though, but there’s an impact nonetheless.
There are three elements to this, I think. They can be broken down further, but in the main they are: friendships before we met, friendships since we’ve met and friendships we’ve made as a couple. To give a time frame, the relevance of which will appear before long, Mr. Juniper and I have been together for closing in on six-and-a-half years.
In some ways, it would seem that building a friendship from scratch while also contending with mental illness and caregiving would be the hardest of all, but, excuse the poor wording here, in those circumstances, everything is already “there.” The illness and caregiving are there at the beginning and will naturally be a part of the process. When illness and caregiving are introduced into a friendship? That’s when things can become difficult because they’re being introduced into something that’s already established.
So, to begin with friendships from before we met? Mr. Juniper’s illness and my caregiving have definitely had an impact on those friendships but it has been far from the same impact on individual friendships. With my friends, I’m fortunate to know an amazing bunch of intelligent and compassionate people. That doesn’t mean, however, that it’s always been plain sailing. In one case, a ten year friendship was almost wrecked. To be fair, while what happened may have had its roots in my caregiving (and so, Mr. Juniper’s illness), the friend and I were both responsible for what went down.
So, onto the wrecking? It came about, for the most part, in two ways: my protectiveness of Mr. Juniper and my need to take care of myself. Oh, and a third way: not letting my friend in on the first two. He knew Mr. Juniper was ill and knew I needed to take time out for myself but I wasn’t one for elaborating. As such, we would go out for lunch and spend a few hours catching up. There came a point though, where words were had and as exceptionally polite and coherent though they were, it was a shock. I hadn’t realised that my reluctance could end up being so detrimental. To explain the “reluctance” a little more: when we would go out to lunch, I’d say a little of Mr. Juniper or my caregiving. I would outright avoid the subject. I spent so much time caregiving that I needed time to just be Juniper, to not think about various stresses. But it meant that something had changed, and our friendship was such that he knew there was something I wasn’t talking about and that it was important. I had needed to say that I needed time to just be Juniper, that the caregiving was a bigger part of my life than he realised. That was all. It was admitting to my tiredness and stress, which meant things made more sense. I knew and have always known that this friend is compassionate and considerate, I could have done to have more faith in that knowledge. To be fair, he said something similar about himself. It certainly wasn’t one sided but it was, at its core, a simple issue with a simple resolution that blew up. What I also learned from this leads onto other experiences with friendships from before I met Mr. Juniper and the realisation that the sooner these things are spoken about, the better. It’s one thing to wait weeks, or indeed months, but years? It can be difficult, there’s no doubt about it, but I guess what I’m trying to get at is: it comes down to communication and trust. If there’s one thing about mental illness and caregiving, it’s that you’ll soon find out who your friends are. In turn though, it does a disservice to those good friends, to neglect letting them in on important aspects of your life.
That incident of wrecking is, thankfully, the hardest thing I have faced with friends I already knew before meeting Mr. Juniper. There are other … difficulties though. The biggest challenge being that as a caregiver, I don’t get a lot of time to myself and that can be difficult when, like any relationship, friendships need time. But in turn, that’s where communication remains so important, both in relating my needs to Mr. Juniper and letting friends know that if, for example, I have to postpone plans, that it’s because Mr. Juniper is going through a particularly rough patch and not because I’m trying to avoid them.
There are then the friendships made since meeting Mr. Juniper. These are friendships I’ve made myself and also friendships we’ve made as a couple. With having Juniper Junior, friendships made have been through antenatal classes and nursery. And if you’re a parent or know someone with children, you’re probably aware of how hard it can be to make friends in those situations and that’s without additional factors. I was fortunate through antenatal classes to meet another like-minded mum. And in that, I’m reminded that however much consideration there has to be for Mr. Juniper’s illness and my caregiving, that we mustn’t forget we’re people in our own right and that’s what friendships need to be founded on. That isn’t to say people can’t make connections because of illness or caregiving, but that there is more to the person than that, and it mustn’t be forgotten. It’s another case of: you’ll soon find out who your friends are. A person doesn’t have to know much of mental illness or caregiving to be compassionate or understanding and that is where it becomes clear if there’s a future for the friendship. One of my closest mummy friends is much like this, she certainly isn’t about to submit psychiatry research papers but that hasn’t stopped her being a good friend. There are hurdles though, and I’m aware that I’m beginning to sound like a broken record: it goes both ways, but communication is paramount. Mr. Juniper may be going through a rough patch and so I have to reschedule plans. I say little more than it being a rough patch but I don’t simply drop plans at the last minute, either.
There are then the friendships we have made as a couple. We have been very fortunate to come across good people, time and again. In the case of family friends, as it were, many of them have also had their own struggles. So in that respect, there is a lot of not only compassion, but understanding, too. It is though a situation where I’m aware that there are differences. As an example, with family friends, it wouldn’t be an outrageous suggestion to go out to dinner together, see a movie or go away for a weekend together. These aren’t, however, ways that we spend time with friends. It’s where Mr. Juniper’s condition does change things but we simply try to adapt. Adaption is a big part of relationships as a whole, it doesn’t have to be all or nothing but finding what works. Friends know they’re welcome at our home, as opposed to going out, and for us, it works. It’s another occasion for communication and communicating needs, but for keeping it simple, too.
As for Mr. Juniper and the friendships he has had before we met and after. It’s been difficult for him and when I asked him how he felt his illness impacted on his friendships, he said, “I just don’t talk about it.” I know this is essentially the “arrangement” he has with his oldest and dearest friend from his school days. It isn’t to say they aren’t close, because they are, but Mr. Juniper’s illness has been around in small ways since they were kids together and in those circumstances, the impression I have always got from them was one of simply carrying on regardless. I know it’s not ideal and that Mr. Juniper finds it hard at times, but I think, too, it is a situation where they are comfortable with where they are. Very much a case of each friendship being different. And in terms of friendships after we met, they have come generally through support groups which has meant he has met like-minded people and so hasn’t had many hurdles as they are all in similar boats to begin with.
So in a way, whilst it can pose difficulties, having mental illness and caregiving within our lives does have the advantage of seeing sooner perhaps than otherwise might happen in “ordinary” circumstances what people are really like. It has meant that friendships are not always easy, but that in the end, I think, they become stronger. The ones, at least, that matter. This is also something that strays into the territory of simply telling people about being mentally ill or being a caregiver, which I hope to cover soon. And that, in turn leads me to saying I’ll be back with Caregiving articles in a couple of weeks, in the mean time I’m going to take a little break and try to focus on taking care of myself.
Oh, and here’s the lovely Laurena Segura: