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Life-changing injuries

Friends and social life after acquired disability or injury

People’s experiences of friendships and social life varied after their injury. Friends could be very supportive, struggle to understand, disappear or be replaced by new friends, often who had similar experiences. People’s social lives sometimes changed as things they used to enjoy doing, like going to nightclubs or pubs, were no longer appealing. Sometimes people continued to enjoy the same activities with the support of friends.

Some friends visited people in hospital or sent cards. They could be deeply affected by the injuries; Sam said his friends were “traumatised”. Friends sometimes offered support and encouragement by spending time talking to the injured people, some of whom were comatose.
 

Marina’s son’s friends came to visit him in hospital when he had come round from his coma. She...

Marina’s son’s friends came to visit him in hospital when he had come round from his coma. She...

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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Meanwhile, he had so many visitors and lots of friends and family and each one would go in and offer a different story to him and he would obviously just look. He wasn’t responding to any of us. If we asked him to squeeze our hand, he wasn’t able to. If we asked him to blink on command, he wasn’t able to. Fortunately, in Intensive Care they have televisions in there, and he always loved music and sport. So we constantly kept those channels on. And his eyes would look across at the TV, but he wouldn’t sort of respond to anything. 
 
So, you know, this went on really probably for another three weeks. There was no response from him. And if he saw anyone coming to his bedside he would shy away like he would when he was a 2 year old and he was sort of in my arms, and wary of someone, his head would go to one side and he’d look strange at them as much as to say, I don’t know who you are. 
 
And as I said, this went on for like nearly three weeks, and then one Sunday, friends went in and he, he smiled at them and everyone was sort of, you know, amazed, “Oh smile for me, and smile for me.” But he would only select the certain ones that he would smile for. And then we realised that he was beginning to become aware, and, you know, that was quite amazing. He would sort of have sort of half recognition by the smiles, for people.

 

 

Julie and Corrie put a visitor’s book in Wesley’s hospital room so they would know who visited....

Julie and Corrie put a visitor’s book in Wesley’s hospital room so they would know who visited....

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Corrie: Friends of his from the Scouts would go and visit him in hospital weekly sometimes more often, throughout the whole time he was in there. Lots, lots of people did different things. On Christmas Day Mum and I went to the hospital and the rest of sort of Mum’s family are down on the south coast, so I think we were seeing them Boxing Day, so it was just Mum and I and Wes really on Christmas Day and when we were in the hospital my best friend turned up with her Mum and her brother whose the same age as Wes and they’re good friends as well. Just to come and give us a bit of company at the hospital on Christmas Day, which we didn’t know they were going to do. And we just think well it’s so thoughtful that they did, given that everyone has their own family Christmas, but the fact that they’d taken the time out to think oh they might like a bit of extra company was very thoughtful. There were numerous instances of where people were providing help and support, not always financially just with their time or research or …

Julie: Yeah, and sometimes you know, you didn’t know, which is why a friend of mine had said have a visitors book and get people to write in it, because sometimes you get quite a surprise, you suddenly open the book and realise that somebody had been in and spent a couple of hours with him.
 
Corrie: Yes.
 
Julie: You know. On the Christmas Day, unbeknown to us until we knew, that actually a friend of mine had popped in [friend's name], on her way, before we got there, and popped in for an hour and I think my brother had as well. And we didn’t know. Did we? And when we had the book…
 
Corrie: Yes.
 
Julie: It was good really, because it gave us, if people popped in when we weren’t there, but also sometimes, especially like with [man's name] or [ woman's name] they would sort of give us a little novel on how he’d been doing, or they’d done something particular with him and how well he’d done and things, so that proved quite useful to us because we could sort of see who’d been in and out, or done something, isn’t it? 

 

 

Jamie joked it was difficult to have a social life when you were in a coma.

Jamie joked it was difficult to have a social life when you were in a coma.

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How my injury affected me? Well darling, basically, my injury initially was, put me in a coma. And so I, would you like me to go any further? Ok, well, being in a coma it’s very difficult to talk in a coma and therefore communicate with other people, i.e. socialise or anything. 

After returning home from hospital, some people told us they did not go out much because they were still recovering from their injuries. They were often supported by family during this time, and did not see their friends very much. Spending a lot of time in hospital, rehabilitation and at home recovering led to people feeling isolated, but they didn’t realise how isolating the experience was until later when they returned to “normal life” (Louise).
 

He does not see his friends as much as usual because he has not gone back to work since his brain...

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Well I’ve got like a group of friends who I sometimes go and see, but a lot of my friends were from work and I don’t really get to see them too often because I’m not going to work.
 
So what kind of things do you do when you see your friends?
 
Like, the other day was my friend’s birthday. So just went round his house for a few drinks and listen to music and play computer.
 
Is it the same as before?
 
Pretty much, yeah. When we do get together it’s pretty much the same as it was before. I see my brother-in-law. I see him a lot. I’m quite good friends with him, but like I hardly see my work friends now. And my other friends from school, I see them once every couple of weeks.

 

 

Louise doesn't talk to her friends about her experience of injury because she knows how much it...

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Louise doesn't talk to her friends about her experience of injury because she knows how much it...

Age at interview: 31
Sex: Female
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I’ve got a lot of friends and a lot of friends have been there for me. But I think my experience with friends is I can really only talk about myself, as in I don’t think I could share stuff with them so easily. Not because of the type of friends I have or how they were. I just think that it was difficult for me to share stuff with friends.
 
Why do you think that was?
 
I don’t know. I think it’s just the extreme nature of what it was. I think underneath that they’ve suffered a lot anyway because everyone was telling me how much this whole thing affected them. So, I didn’t want to make it any worse for my friends or my family. But I don’t think I’m able to talk about the finer details. I mean part of me is just like, what’s the point? I don’t know, I think maybe unconsciously it’s just I feel they’ve got no relationship to it. I don’t know, that might be part of it. Just that they’ve got no real concept of that. It’s just something I don’t share.

 

Experiencing a life-changing injury can lead people to change the priorities in their social lives. Some people said they got tired easily, experienced a loss in self-confidence and no longer liked being in crowded places. Jane found she used the internet more to socialise on Facebook and social media, and others said they were happy to stay in. Some changed the activities they did since their injury, partly because of things they were no longer able to do. For instance, some people were discouraged from drinking, sometimes because they were on strong medication for seizures or psychiatric problems, or because of the effect alcohol can have on the behaviour of people with brain injury. People who used wheelchairs were initially reluctant to go to places that were inaccessible, and said they may have used this as an excuse to stay in. But, going out and spending time with friends helped them to get over this. Those whose injuries were caused by crime worried about going out because they felt the world had become more threatening and dangerous since their injuries.
 

Because of the effects of his injury and his paranoia about his safety, Kenneth does not like...

Because of the effects of his injury and his paranoia about his safety, Kenneth does not like...

Age at interview: 52
Sex: Male
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It’s probably partly paranoia, you know, that you’re in fear of something happening. I mean certainly after the bombing of London, you know, when I had the shop. I mean I wouldn’t get the tube to work. I was slightly at that stage paranoid about the tubes. I just walked to work, an hour there, an hour back, makes it a bit harder, but I just couldn’t for a while. So I mean whether that’s paranoia or not I don’t know. But I don’t like being in situations where there’s hundreds of people around moving in different directions and bumping and just doesn’t appeal to me at all. Well in terms of change in the past, I would have been more than happy. In fact it would have been part of my life really. Socialising. But now I can do without it, quite happily.
 
Why is that?
 
I suppose it’s a bit of an unnatural fear I suppose. Too many people, too much movement, too much noise. I can’t sort of filter it out. It’s just too much. It can send people into a bit of a spin almost. Or, you know, even with the fatigue thing, you know, sometimes I’d be on the tube coming back from Rehab from UK, coming back to [local tube station], and I’d wake up in Uxbridge, because I’d fallen asleep on the, on the tube. So you really don’t want to be heading out to London, knowing full well that it’s possible that you might just be having a bit of a nap and end up in Uxbridge, which is a nice place, but there again I wasn’t planning that.
 
Okay.
 
You’re just going to cut back on a lot of things. I mean, social isolation’s partly your own fault in a way, you just don’t want to socialise to the same degree. No.

 

 

He doesn't like going out because he sees violence all around. He has had to stop drinking...

He doesn't like going out because he sees violence all around. He has had to stop drinking...

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I don’t really go with anybody, because the reason if I do go with anyone, the question is, do you want to go and have a drink? I don’t want to drink. I don’t want to drink. Because if I drink, medication and drink they don’t match and that’s the answer. 
 
I mean love going out with [wife’s name]. We go out I spend a lot of time drinking latte coffee now. And that’s it. That’s my life, and my addiction is going out shopping by myself and clothes. That’s my addiction and that’s being like a teenager. As I said, that’s what teenagers do, get a buzz by shopping. But, that’s what I do. You know, I don’t like going out drinking with people. Because it’s just violence all around wherever you go there’s violence. I’d like to sit in someone’s house and have a meal in someone’s house, or go to a restaurant and have a meal in someone’s restaurant then, yeah. But then I find it hard, obviously going to a restaurant and saying to myself, “[participant’s name] don’t drink alcohol”. Because drinking one, yes, I feel all right. Two, three, you’re going beyond and beyond and that’s what I find hard, so… Yeah.
 
Is it hard to stop when you start?
 
Yeah. I think with anybody. I think everyone says that. Just a normal person it’s hard, you know. I’m just going to have one glass of wine and before you know it, you’ve had the whole bottle so… But with me with the medication I’m on, they don’t, they just don’t match together, don’t combine. So … you’re better off, I don’t know, you know. And that’s frustrating for me. That it’s going to be like this for the rest of my life, if I carry on taking Tegretols, is this...you know, yeah. Frustrating. Everything’s frustrating but, yeah.

 

 

He lost a lot of confidence after his injury and part of his rehabilitation was to get it back...

He lost a lot of confidence after his injury and part of his rehabilitation was to get it back...

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Male
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Yeah, that’s, as I might have mentioned earlier, I come from [home town name] which is a big kind of going out club nightlife, which I got back into reasonably quickly. I think I suffered massively from body image and confidence when I was probably in that year, two years post injury bit. But after that bit, no I was going out just as much as I ever was, probably partying far too hard than I should have done. But I’d kind of come through that lack of confidence and body image and all that and suffered so much with it that I kind of felt that I owed it to myself to get out and go out. And after that I had a massive group of friends locally. I went out a lot and didn’t really care, and that was almost part of my rehab, was rebuilding my confidence and getting out.  

 

After discharge from rehab, Sam only wanted to go to accessible places. That has changed now. He...

After discharge from rehab, Sam only wanted to go to accessible places. That has changed now. He...

Age at interview: 29
Sex: Male
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You know, I initially always said to my friends, “I don’t want to go anywhere where I’ve got to be carried in. I don’t want to go anywhere where’s there’s, you know, no loo.” And you know, you feel, you feel like, and you’re justified in feeling, that people are looking at you, because they are looking at you, and then the less you care, the less people look, and the more you kind of confront the things that you think are going to be a problem.
 
I mean this Friday I was at a party. I had to go up and down stairs. And it was different mates carrying up, like about six times and there were like a thousand people there and you know, you think is going to be a real pain, and you shouldn’t do it...And you should, you know, you’ve got to you’ve got to not let it stop you doing things otherwise you’re going to resent it even more.

 

A few people told us they were worried about how their friends would treat them after their injury. They talked about how important it was to be open with friends, and to joke with them. Wesley’s friends help him when they are out because they know about his brain injury and can explain to others, like bouncers, that he isn’t drunk. Friends could also be protective particularly early on in their recovery. Sam appreciated the support his friends gave him so much, he wrote to thank them all.
 

Her son has begun to play football with his friends again. They worry about him heading the ball.

Her son has begun to play football with his friends again. They worry about him heading the ball.

Age at interview: 54
Sex: Female
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He was at the park two weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon and, as I said, he’s only just started playing football again. So you know, it’s all aches and pains and, “Oh my legs”, and yeah, “Oh great, great, fine, have a bath, you’ll get over it”. And he came home this one Sunday evening and he said, “Oh I was playing football today.” And I said, “Yes, great, that’s good.” He said, “And I headed the ball.” I said, “Oh that’s great.” He said, “Yeah, but,” he said, “All my friends shouted out, ‘Daniel, what are you doing?’” And he said, “What? What do you mean? What am I doing? I headed the ball.” He said, “I forgot I had a brain injury.” He said, “I forgot all about the accident.” And I thought that was totally amazing. I said, “Well that was excellent.” And he said, “Yeah, but he said they went mad. They said, ‘What are you are doing that for? You know you can’t do it.” And then he said, “And then I thought, oh so I can’t.” You know, “I hope nothing happens.” And I said, “Well if it happens it happens. And if it doesn’t that’s great.” And he was absolutely fine. No problem.  

 

His friends treat him as before, making jokes, which Sam likes because it’s nice for him not to feel delicate.

His friends treat him as before, making jokes, which Sam likes because it’s nice for him not to feel delicate.

Age at interview: 29
Sex: Male
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And sometimes it’s nice not to feel that delicate you know. It’s nice not to be delicate around your friends, you know.
 
Like my other friend I was slagging – I’m quite rude to people. I feel like if you’re rude then people trust what you’re saying because they know you’re being honest. And you know, you don’t be rude to be mean, you know, but it’s just something you see and it’s not necessarily a positive thing and of course I take the piss out of them for it. So I was slagging off my friend’s shoes and he was like, “Well your shoes are crap, they’re like, look how wide they are.” And my other friend was saying, “Oh there’s no point in having a go at anything about Sam, because he’ll just say it’s something to do with being in a wheelchair, and then you’ll be like, oh, sorry about that.”
 
And you know, you need to have that, because remember when I talked about losing your standards? Losing your like context for your behaviour? You need to have that with your friends. If you’re not capable of having that with people they’re not really your friends, you know? So I’ve got a wide and close group of friends. They can say anything to me. They’ve said some stuff that really pissed me off actually. But like that’s any friendship isn’t it? And that’s we’d be like that anywhere. And you’d rather people were being open.
Some friendships “naturally fizzled out” (Jack) as people stopped working and socialising with work colleagues. People sometimes decided there were friends they no longer wanted to socialise with and Joe said he no longer saw his friends because he felt a failure. Being injured had made them realise they wanted to spend more quality time with the people who were most important to them. Jack said his injury had helped him to know who his friends were. Sometimes people also found that they lost friends after injury because they were unable to cope with what happened. This could be hurtful and they felt let down.
 

Jack had to think about learning to walk again, but his friends were only interested in 'getting...

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Yes they visited hospital and I went out with them on few occasions. But I think as I realised that I had to grow up pretty quickly and when speaking to my friends, my old friends, my ex-friends, it seemed like they were still like kids, almost. Honestly that's how I felt. I felt like, although we were the same age they were, they were like kids and I saw everything differently now. My priorities had all changed. Like for them it was all about getting smashed at the weekend. For me it was about learning how to walk again, which was quite a big deal. It's not a laughing matter; it's quite a serious thing. So I was so focused on that I just kind of didn't want anything to do with them really. I met up with them on a few occasions and quickly realised that I'm not going to enjoy my time. It wasn't that I just said, "Right I don't want to see you guys anymore," it was just that I was sitting there with them, I wasn't enjoying their company because they were talking about stuff that wasn't going through my head at the time, so it naturally just fizzled out, all the friendships so that was it. 

 

Losing friends is a painful process, but Simon B says it’s “a process that needs to happen”.

Losing friends is a painful process, but Simon B says it’s “a process that needs to happen”.

Age at interview: 42
Sex: Male
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So, my social life was pretty good after it taking a massive hit, both in losing some friends, because you do, but they’re friends you need to lose really because the good ones stick around and the bad ones leave. So that’s, that’s a process that needs to happen as far as I can work out. And just finding out whether you want to do the things you did before your injury, whether they mean the same things to you. You know, I spent, you know, the first ten years after my injury going out a hell of a lot. I was 25 when I had my accident and I think I partied quite hard until I was about 32, 33. And then I moved on to a different stage in my life and that was nothing to do with my disability; that was to do with just wanting different things. I think sport and culture crept into my life when I got a bit older. So you got the confidence to leave the front door, that’s where you need to be, getting the confidence back is the hard bit. So, but to have the confidence you need to do it, and to do it, you need confidence. So it’s a vicious circle. 

Money was also a factor influencing people’s friendships. People who were unable to return to work after injury lost touch with friends as they couldn’t afford to go out as much as before. And while insurance and compensation payments meant that some people were financially able to help out their friends from time to time, some friends tried to take advantage of them. 
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People generally felt positive about making new friends. There were opportunities to meet people through clubs they belonged to, at university or online. They became close to other injured people they had met in hospital or through support groups or day centres. But, Simon A thought it was difficult to make “genuine friendships” and Rob was having difficulty making new friends since he lost his sight.
 

Since he lost his sight, Rob cannot read body language or gauge people’s reactions. He would like...

Since he lost his sight, Rob cannot read body language or gauge people’s reactions. He would like...

Age at interview: 24
Sex: Male
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I just want to get across to people who aren’t visually impaired... Since I’ve lost my sight, it’s, for certain people, it’s difficult for them to talk to me. They, they won’t come up and engage me or like, like on a social level. I mean this is happening – it’s really been pointed out at college more than anything. It’s… at certain times like people will be less inclined to talk to me. Maybe they feel awkward or maybe, yeah, they just don’t know what to say; they’re worried about putting their foot in it or whatever. But, it’s really difficult because I struggle to engage people because I can’t see where they are, or whether they’re busy, or whether they’re doing something, and you know, it’s good to make an effort, don’t, if you see like a visually impaired person, like a, you know, like in a social situation, I mean you shouldn’t, you shouldn’t really hesitate to go up, because I’d always appreciate someone coming up to me and talking to me and you know, just making the effort and if I felt like talking to them, fair enough, I would be like, “You know what, not right now”. But I mean it’s good to make the effort because I know it’s, it’s a dark intimidating world when you’re blind and the social side of things has been quite difficult for me.
 
What exactly has been difficult? Just what you have described now?
 
Yeah, basically what I’ve just described. I mean striking up conversations with people and that, and you know, getting people to... My, I don’t know, it’s difficult. I suppose I might be asking too much because not everyone, unless you know someone who is visually impaired, I suppose you don’t really know what they’re going through or what, what to say.

 

Although there were things people could no longer do, they were still able to take part in a range of social activities with their partners and friends, including visiting family, going out for meals, going to gigs, the theatre, museums, football matches, the cinema. They felt they had lots of social opportunities because they lived in London. London’s varied and accessible public transport allowed them to be independent and have a social life that they may not have had if they lived elsewhere.

(See ‘Living in London’) 

Last reviewed October 2015.

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