I want to spend time with my friends, but my body and brain create big barriers.

Hi! Due to neurodivergence, burnout, and chronic pain and fatigue, my sleep schedule is inconsistent at best, as are my energy levels (or spoons) but I want to spend more time with friends and not cancel on them much. Do you have any ideas on how to help with this?
Mo Ranyart replies:

This is a great question. I can really sympathize with how all of these elements can make socializing more difficult and how frustrating that can be, especially at a time when you may feel like you want extra support from the people in your life. I don't think there's one clear solution here, but I do have a lot of thoughts that may help!

First off, I'd try to have a conversation with some of your closest friends, in which you lay out the situation for them in as much detail as you feel comfortable providing. I don't know how open you are with them about the burnout you're feeling, or how your chronic health conditions are impacting you at the moment, but if you feel able to discuss these factors at all, I think that'll provide some helpful context.

I think this is a good place to start for a couple reasons: first, it can help you and your friends choose ways to socialize that will be a better fit for you and your needs. You may be able to stick to plans more easily and cancel less often if more of those plans take your accessibility needs in mind. It also means that if you do have to postpone, change, or cancel plans, they'll better understand the reasons why. It will probably be easier on both you and your friends to provide that context ahead of time than it would be in the moment.

When making plans, try to be realistic about what you can commit to.

If you know that large group events or something like a movie that requires you to arrive on time are a bad fit for you right now, you may want to decline those invitations right off the bat, or let someone know you're unsure if you'll be able to make it and see what they suggest. Of course you won't always know in advance if you'll be able to keep plans once you make them, but it may help to focus on accepting plans that are a bit more flexible, for the time being.

Relatedly: be sure you're being realistic with yourself, too. If you're having a lot of fun, or if friends are exerting even friendly social pressure, it can be easy to tell yourself you'll just push through pain or fatigue, but that often leads to much bigger crashes later. Be careful not to ignore your body's warning signs, or push yourself to a point where you know you'll have problems, just because you're having fun. Alternately, if you feel pretty sure that you will push yourself, or it feels like a worthwhile tradeoff to make, try to build a lot of recovery time into your schedule.

If you do notice friendly pressure coming from your friends—statements like "I'm sure you'll be fine!" or, "But we'd miss you so much, you have to come!"—it can be helpful to have a few responses ready to go. Those might sound something like "I'll miss you too; I'm having a bad pain day and need to rest, but I'll get in touch next week," or, "I'm sure I'd have a great time, but I'd be so exhausted I'd have to miss work for a few days afterwards," or even, "I wish there was a way for me to make this work, but there isn't, and I need you to accept that even though it sucks." Pressure to participate may come from a loving and well-meaning place, but when it's hard to say no to things you want to do, even gentle pressure can be stressful and hard to deal with!

If possible, try to build flexibility or exit points into your plans.

If a friend invites you to go to a museum and then get lunch and the entire day feels like it might be more than you can handle, you might say, "That might be more than I have energy for, but I'd love to spend a couple hours with you at the museum," or, "Maybe I could meet up with you for lunch and you could tell me about your favorite exhibits." Alternately, you could let your friend know that the entire plan sounds great but you may need to play things by ear and head home early. In general, you may find that the current uncertainty in your schedule means you don't want to make plans for anything with a firm starting time, or that requires buying a nonrefundable ticket beforehand, since those would make it more difficult to adjust plans on the fly if you were running late or had to cancel at the last minute.

This is where talking to friends beforehand, so they understand your situation, can be helpful; if you know they're already aware that you have limited spoons, it might feel easier in the moment to quickly say, "I need to duck out, thanks for inviting me," than to try and explain your entire pain and fatigue situation from square one as you're trying to make an exit. You could also set expectations before an event, by saying something like "I'm excited to see you today but I'm feeling pretty low-energy," or, "I may need to leave before the event's over but I'm looking forward to it." Any of these statements can provide helpful context for your friends, and it may also encourage them to offer accommodations to you: like another alternative or some reassurance that you're welcome wherever you're at. If you're comfortable with it, you may even have specific things you want to ask friends for, whether that's planning more events with flexible start times, checking in on you one-on-one if you haven't accepted an invitation in a while, or setting up a small, recurring chat or get-together that's low-energy and easy to plan for.

Take the initiative when possible.

Being the one to plan and initiate time with friends can be a good idea too, since it's a way to propose something that's more tailored to your needs from the start. If you aren't in the habit of being the initiator, this can take some practice, but it's worth spending time on it. Maybe you could propose remote events, like watching movies together while chatting either by voice or text, streaming or playing games together online, or having video calls. You may even enjoy spending time on a video call with friends while you're each doing something like crafting or working on some other project, chatting either a bunch or just every once in a while. "Parallel play" like this isn't just for kids! A lot of adults I know really enjoy that kind of social time, and of course it's possible to have this sort of quiet hangout time in person too.

To give an example from my own life, my closest local friend and I have a standing date to hang out and knit for a couple hours every week. We used to meet in a cafe, at the beginning of the pandemic we switched to video chat, and now we alternate between each other's houses. Some weeks we talk a lot; others we're pretty quiet and enjoy each other's company while we work on projects while sitting on the couch together. There are times when her migraines or my mental health are bad and we cancel for that week, but because we already know we'll plan on getting together the next week, it makes it easier for us to make that decision if we need to. And because we're pretty open with each other about how we're feeling, sometimes one of us will say "I'm looking forward to today but I feel pretty bad so I might not talk a lot while I'm there," or something similar, and that's okay. Being open with each other about our own limitations and building a consistent yet flexible plan has helped us stay connected even when things were difficult.

To sum it all up, I think the best plan here is to be as honest with yourself and your friends about where you're at and what you're up for, both in general and on any given day, and try to prioritize the kinds of social plans that allow for some flexibility. Not everyone is the best at accommodating people's accessibility needs, but I do believe most people want to be accommodating and understanding, even if they don't immediately know how. I hope that if you're able to have some honest conversations with your friends, you'll be able to find ways to keep in touch and affirm your connections to each other that don't cause you additional pain or stress. I wish you the best of luck!

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