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From Summer 2011 Forum

By Jane K*

Having a penpal is a wonderful idea and I thank the person who suggested it in an earlier Forum issue. A penpal relationship is a visit to the outside world when we are isolated. A penpal is a companion with whom to share thoughts, fears, questions, and dreams. But, as in any new relationship, each penpal needs to pay attention to what develops. So, as a penpal of almost 20 years, I offer some thoughts and suggestions.

Long time no letter: Please don't draw conclusions if you don't get a return letter for a while. Remember that we all live with unexpected crashes of varying severity, times of needing to pull into our snailshells, and family issues that we are dealing with. And letters do simply get lost. If you haven't heard from your penpal in an unusually long time, just drop a short note to say that there hasn't been mail in a while and is everything OK (so to speak)? Conversely, if you need to drop the correspondence for the time being, try to send a short note to your penpal that says you can't write currently but will be back in touch later.

Just not my kinda gal: You've been corresponding for a few months and you just can't get excited about it. That's OK. Being ill in itself is not sufficient grounds for a friendship. If the spark just doesn't light, save the both of you some energy. Write a short, friendly note simply saying that you won't be able to keep writing. No explanation needed. You can also just trail off, of course, but your penpal may worry about you.

Save me! Penpals are merely potential friends. Not doctors, social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, or rescuers. Sometimes we all need more than another can give. If your penpal wants to be rescued by you, kindly but firmly set clear boundaries on what you can and cannot do. Example: "You seem to be very depressed. Can I help find you some phone numbers of people who really could help you, since I am not the right person?" Especially get advice from a suicide hotline if a penpal seems suicidal.

Sailing, sailing, over the boundary line: If your red flag goes up, pay attention. Examples: if you feel anxious when you hear from your penpal, if you get contacted way too often, or outside of your "good" hours, or asked for personal information you just don't want to give, or if your penpal has issues that are over your head (such as mental instability as opposed to brain fog). Rarely, someone might try to use the vulnerability of a penpal to get money from her/him. Don't go there.

Hey, cutie pie! Flirting can be wonderful, if it's fine in the context of both of your lives. Enjoy the buzz! But if either penpal acts inappropriately or doesn't respect the stated limits of the other penpal, please terminate contact quickly. No excuses needed. Nobody needs to be scared, harassed, or stalked, especially when we're not well anyway.

Violence: If you learn that someone is hurting your penpal (often it's another person in that household), call a domestic violence hotline and share your concerns. They will help you to decide what, if anything, to do. But don't act impetuously, as you may endanger your penpal or yourself.

The delights of snail mail: Despite all of the above, I am an ardent fan of penpals! Here are some of the wonders of penpal friendship:

A friend living on a farm sent me some cowtail hairs picked out of the fence between pastures. I read a children's book onto tape and sent it to a relapsed friend to soothe her. A penpal made me a mixtape of her favorite songs. I sent newspaper clippings of photos of log cabins to a friend who had never heard of them. We share photos of our houseplants and give each other advice on growing them. Good paperbacks travel among penpals. We record the birds outside our windows and send them to each other. Penpals can send magazine articles, jokes, easy recipes, packaged foods new to each other, photos, websites we love, pet stories, and more. Most important, a penpal can be a friend who feels right there with you.

*The author, from NJ, has given us information that is applicable to our telephone support network as well as to penpals. A penpal can be found by e-mailing a request for an application: You can join the new telephone support network by just letting us know you want to join and including your telephone number and any preferred time zones or times to call.

The National CFIDS Foundation * 103 Aletha Rd, Needham Ma 02492 *(781) 449-3535 Fax (781) 449-8606