Brandy Jensen, The Outline’s social media editor, has made a lot of mistakes in her life. Has she learned from them and become a wiser person as a result? Hahaha oh gosh no. But it does leave her uniquely qualified to tell you what not to do — because she’s probably done it.
I’ve become friends over the last few years with a woman, let’s call her Jane. We’re not super tight — neither of us is in the other’s inner circle — but we have a warm friendship and a great rapport, and I really love our time together. She’s smart and sharp and weird and funny and one of my favorite people to talk to.
A central part of Jane’s life is her chronic illness — she has good days and bad days, is constantly wrangling insurance and medical bills, and has a seemingly endless calendar of doctor’s visits and medical procedures, occasionally traveling to faraway clinics to see specialists. A lot of people in my family live with chronic illnesses, so I’m familiar with how life can turn into an exhausting hamster wheel, and I try very hard to be a good friend to Jane.
She’s always been kind of pointedly vague about her actual diagnosis (which is fine, she doesn’t have to tell me), but a few months ago one of her close friends set up a GoFundMe to help Jane deal with her mounting expenses. From this I learned that her illness is late-stage Lyme Disease.
So here’s the problem: late-stage, or “chronic” Lyme isn’t real. It’s not a medically recognized disease. Its more generous critics say the people claiming to suffer from it are probably suffering from something, but haven’t found the right diagnosis yet and in their frustration have found comfort in late-stage Lyme’s welcoming community of people who believe their pain is real, and are offering them a name for it.
As for me, I love Jane, and I see that she’s genuinely in pain. But I just … don’t fucking know what to do. My sense of who she is has bottomed out. I feel like she’s revealed that she’s in a UFO cult, or something. I don’t feel comfortable playing along with her belief in a fake disease, but I also don’t feel like it’s my job to convert her to sanity. I’m not her therapist. I’m not her mom. I’ve got no moral sway over her. Is our friendship over? Should I just suck it up and accept her version of reality? That feels so condescending! Especially since I give the same kind of support and attention to my friends and family whose chronic illnesses are, well, real.
Dear Ticked Off,
I suppose I should just lean in to the inevitable ire and say outright that I will follow the majority of the medical community — although I must stress that I am not a medical professional but merely a Fuck-Up with an English degree — in thinking that chronic Lyme is not a legitimate diagnosis. As you note, this is not to say that sufferers are not, well, suffering, and we should absolutely take into account the long history of women in particular being ignored or treated with suspicion when presenting symptoms of as-yet-unrecognized illnesses, but the Centers for Disease Control, the National Institutes of Health, and the Infectious Diseases Society of America all agree that treatment for a persistent infection is not grounded in accepted medical science.
However, it seems the point of contention here isn’t about loosey-goosey doctors potentially conning your friend, it’s your sense that your friend has conned you.
You are self-aware enough to realize that, as a dear but somewhat casual acquaintance, you are in no real position to convince Jane to seek a different avenue of medical treatment. You’re correct in saying that you’re neither this woman’s mother nor her therapist; what you also need to keep in mind is that she hasn’t asked you to be.
Jane has not actually told you she has chronic Lyme — you discovered this information on your own, and I think this is telling. Jane is not actually requiring you to take part in what may be a shared delusion. So, think about what she has been asking of you. You mention giving her support and attention on the order of that you provide other friends with chronic illnesses. What level of support and attention would you provide a healthy friend who engages in a sort of magical thinking you personally find unseemly, like astrology or being a Mets fan?
I’m being glib, but seeing as she has not yet told you about her illness it seems like the only thing she really wants from you is friendship. You say that you enjoy talking to her, not that these talks take place while you drive her to medical appointments three times a week or while you are signing a check to help with her expenses.
The problem here is that you seem to have reassessed her qualities as a friend. To put it bluntly: you feel a bit superior to Jane, since she’s someone who would buy into this delusion and you most certainly are not, and often friendships are built when two people get to feel superior to the rest of the world, together.
But I think you should try to maintain your (admittedly not that extensive!) presence in Jane’s life. If and when she does tell you about her diagnosis, you need not express your misgivings unless she specifically asks for them, in which case be as kind as possible. And remember, it could be much worse — at least she’s not a Scientologist.
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