JG Chayko On a Mexican beach

The morning sun is just cresting over the horizon, spilling its rays over a clear glass ocean. The plaza is empty except for a few tiny birds hopping about looking for scraps under empty tables. The wedding parties from the previous night have long since ended, and the only music I hear is the soft treble of waves lapping over the shore, a melodious farewell to an amazing week in Mexico with my two best friends. 

How Friendships Evolve when Chronic Illness Enters the Picture

This is the first major trip I’ve taken with my friends since rheumatoid arthritis entered my life. Earlier this year, I travelled to Portugal with my husband. Travelling with my husband is different than travelling with my friends. My husband is privy to all the little intricacies of married life. He sees me at my worst in the mornings, understands my limitations, knows when to offer his assistance and when to back off when I’m having a difficult day.

I’ve known my friends for a long time, but we don’t live together. They see me at my best, or the best I choose to present to them. They don’t see the rough mornings or my bad flare days — they don’t see me in pain or struggling with fatigue. It’s a different kind of intimacy.  

Sometimes friendships evaporate when a person is diagnosed with a chronic condition. We will have many friends and acquaintances over our lifetime — some simply fade away over time due to lifestyle and distance – some become a permanent and important part of our lives. These are the friendships we covet – the ones we want to protect and hold at all costs, and it can be difficult when things change.  

There’s a difference between a relationship with someone who has always had a chronic illness, versus a new onset later in life —the latter usually requires a little bit of fine tuning. Not only did I, as a person with RA, need to adjust to a new kind of life, but my friends and family needed to adjust right along with me. Many people often overlook the collective adjusting needed in the aftermath of a new diagnosis.  

When behaviours change due to chronic illness, it can be unsettling for long-time friends and family. Just as I am trying to find a new rhythm in my body and my schedule, my friends and family are also trying to adapt to unfamiliar nuances in the relationship they have always known with me. I don’t have the energy to keep up with my friends, not the way I used to. Invitations to gatherings and events are not easy commitments when you have RA – my friends’ limits are not my limits and that can be hard to defend, especially with an invisible disease. 

The Nitty-Gritty of Preparing for the Trip

It took a long time to plan this trip. We knew we wanted to plan something special to celebrate our many years of friendship and mark our initiation into mid-life together. It’s challenging as a small group to agree on what activities we can all do together. We are three quite different personalities, coming to the table with three different versions of what we expect from this vacation – and then there’s that third element – a chronic illness.  

Trying to find a balance can be tricky. Communication is key. While we planned things that we wanted to do together, we also understand that it would be okay for each of us to go off and do our own thing every once and a while. A couple of nights I left my friends early to go back to my room and rest. It was hard to leave. It’s frustrating when my mind says yes but my body says no – the guilt is always there, like a little no-see-um (a small insect) in the room.  

What Does Vacation Mean to You?

Vacations for me have always been a subtle blend of activity and relaxation – over the last few years, relaxation has always been at the top. Finding a compromise allowed me to enjoy time with my friends without burning out. I knew I wasn’t up for full-day excursions, but I could do a couple of half-day ones.  

We relaxed into our own skins. We enjoyed coffee in the mornings and watched the sea change colors from gray to emerald to blue. I salsa danced on a boat on the Caribbean sea. I stepped back in time to visit the Mayan ruins and learned all about the amazing things the Maya people gave to our civilization and how much of it we still use today. I kayaked on the sea (okay, my girlfriend did most of the paddling), and we did a Tequila tasting.

We watched lightning storms sweep up from the ocean with a glass of champagne in our hands. There were things we did together, and things we did apart, and it worked out fine because we gave each other the space we needed. We understood that sometimes we just need some quiet time to ourselves.  

On our last day, the three of us sat in an empty plaza waiting for one last sunrise before our departure. We watched the steam from our coffee float into the cool air and then vanish into the ocean spray. It has been a privilege to take this trip with my friends. I am grateful for the experience and thrilled my RA did not hamper my travels. At breakfast, we treated ourselves to a couple of mimosas before boarding the shuttle that took us to the airport and back home, all the while, the warm breezes of the Caribbean embedded in our skin.  

Con amor de México.  

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