She was in the hospital recovering from surgery but had developed pneumonia, so she had been moved to the intensive care unit.
For the first few days she was in the ICU, she kept up with texting and Facebook via her smartphone.
I asked mutual friends if they had heard from her. They hadn’t.
A little poking around revealed that only one friend was listed as a contact on Noreen’s hospital medical chart, and that friend was out of town.
Frustrated and scared, I decided to go to the hospital to see if I could find out what was happening with Noreen.
On my drive there, more questions came up in my mind: Where was Noreen’s family? Who was her closest friend? Who was supporting her through this?
I arrived at the ICU and called the nurse’s station. I didn’t have much hope that I would get information due to privacy laws, but I had to try.
Inexplicably and mercifully, Noreen’s nurse came out to talk with me. She explained that Noreen was “out of it”—disoriented and not making any sense. The doctors weren’t sure what was causing the problem.
I was allowed in to see Noreen who, as reported, was not making a lot of sense. She told me that she needed to go home because she had a lot of things to do. Her face was ghostly white, and the tubes running in and out of her arms looked like a mass of plastic spaghetti.
So began a long journey for Noreen and her friends who love her.
I reached out to Noreen’s other friends and asked each one, “Are you closest to her?” Each time, the answer was, “No, I just know her from our dog obedience classes.”
After a while, we formed a group on Facebook so we could keep in touch with each other about how Noreen was doing. Slowly, we started to piece things together.
Noreen has family in another state but is estranged from them and didn’t want them coming to help her. She is a very private person, and it seemed this was why no one could step forward as her best friend and also why we didn’t know how serious her medical condition had become.
We quickly organized. I took the lead role and was designated as Noreen’s health care advocate. Other friends took care of her dogs and tended to Noreen’s home and financial affairs.
Still in the ICU, Noreen’s condition deteriorated as she contracted infection after infection. We almost lost her—twice.
But, excellent medical care and a steady stream of friends by her bedside, holding her hand and urging her to pull through because we needed her, somehow brought her back from the brink.
After two months in the ICU, Noreen is now in a rehabilitation facility and intent on getting back home to her dogs and her life.
Does ‘social support’ always mean having a best buddy and tight-knit group of friends?
Noreen’s story illustrates one of the components that contribute to the ability to bounce back in life: social support.
But, notice how Noreen’s social support was a bit different than what you might ordinarily envision.
When I suggest to people that increasing their social support may be helpful in getting through a rough time, I often receive replies such as these:
“I really don’t know a lot of people.”
“I’m shy, and it’s hard for me to make friends.”
“I’m new to the area, so don’t know anyone yet.”
“I don’t like to have a lot of friends.”
These are all valid responses and are true for the people who said them, so it’s not my place to say they are not doing social support right!
I’m not convinced there is a “right” when it comes to social support. We often think of social support as having lots of close friends and family or having a best friend. While close relationships are wonderful means of support—and I do encourage them when possible!—they’re not the final word in social support.
Let’s look at Noreen’s situation again. Does she have a best friend? Apparently not. Does she have family here to support her? No. Does she have many friends? Mmmm . . . sort of. She has a number of acquaintances; one might even say close acquaintances, plus a few good friends. But even her friends don’t know her that well.
The thing Noreen has that is so important is community.
Noreen is reserved and private and chooses not to be very close to people. Yet she is also part of a distinct group. She is a dog enthusiast and has participated for many years in activities in the world of dog sports. In so doing, she created a network of people with common interests who know her and grew to love having her as part of the dog-enthusiast community.
Even though she doesn’t have what we would ordinarily think of as social support—the best friend, the close circle, the tight family—she still has a community who became concerned when she took ill and sprang into action to help.
What’s your community?
Maybe your community isn’t centered on a common interest. That’s okay, it can still be a community!
A friend of mine told me a story about going into a print shop that she used to frequent often but hadn’t visited in a few years. As soon as she walked in, the owner broke into a huge grin and said, “It’s you!”
Once or twice a week I go to my favorite restaurant where everybody knows my name. The servers all know me, the management knows me, and some of us regulars know each other. When one of us is missing for a while, we start asking after each other.
Where do I start?
If you’re asking yourself, “How do I develop community?” take a look at what resiliency researchers Steven Southwick and Dennis Charney suggest:
Gaining and giving social support is a process, not an event; it doesn’t happen overnight. Nevertheless, even if you feel friendless or isolated, it is important to start somewhere. No matter how small or weak your current network may be, you can take steps to increase its size and strength. For example, you might make a habit of smiling and saying “hello” to the neighbor at the elevator, or the coworker who sits near you, or you might pick up the phone and call a family member who is lonely or take the time to have coffee with a classmate who has just done poorly on a test. p. 95
So, you don’t have to have a best friend. It’s okay to be shy. No one says you need to have a huge circle of close friends.
But it helps to have a community. And that doesn’t happen overnight.
What does your community look like?
Reference: Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life’s Greatest Challenges – Ten key ways to weather and bounce back from stress and trauma. Steven M. Southwick and Dennis S. Charney. 2012. Cambridge University Press.