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Friday, April 22, 2011

The Dawn of Friendship

 I've often felt like I wandered through life without friends. I never had a difficult time meeting or talking with people. I was not shy. I could usually find a group in which to fit regardless of the situation. But for most of my life I have felt like I have seldom had friends. Many of the times it was my own doing - I'd shove people away, guilt them in ways that I knew would make them want to escape or I'd ignore them knowing that they would move on and not look back. Several times though I would be in a group of people and I would feel like they were humoring me and I wasn't privy to the joke. I'd often choose not to do things with people just to avoid that very sad feeling. Even the few people that I would identify as my best and closest friends were not exempt from this - I would feel like even they would take short breaks from me to spend time with friends that were less exhausting and more together. And often times these very same people would tell me their deepest darkest secrets and I'd listen and talk with them and rush to their aid, but I never felt like I could do the same. I'd stand surrounded by a group that looked very much like my friends and all I would see was that I was alone. And so I started a habit of holding back a lot of what I thought and felt - always keeping some part of me private from almost everyone.

The first time I recall feeling like this was in the middle of a slumber party in elementary school. Somewhere in the middle of all the fun I remember looking around and thinking that no one liked me. There were no adverse words said, no overt action, but somewhere between the gossip, the 45s playing Karma Chameleon on the record player and the game of truth or dare I felt alone. That moment was so clear to me - one moment I was dancing around singing and the next I was overcome with a profound sadness. Sometimes I would exist for long periods of time where I would feel accepted by those people that I called friends, but suddenly the feelings would drift over me and again I would experience that desolate feeling. Sometimes I would go months and months without feeling this way. Other times I would shift between thinking someone may or may not be a friend from minute to minute.

During the year I was in eighth grade I was acutely aware that no one could stand me. I felt like I had one friend and although I would express a few of these feelings to her I mostly kept them to myself - I feared that exposing the truth that no one liked me would make her question why she might and I'd lose the only person with which I felt comfortable. At lunch I'd sit in a group with my "friends," I'd bring extra staples of the same meal I'd eat day in and day out for one of the members of my group that I though only liked me for that reason. And even though I'd talk with these friends, even though they would call me on the phone or return my calls, even though one might invite me to spend the night or we'd get ready to attend a dance together I still felt friendless. It wasn't logical but to me it was true.

This pretty much continued on throughout high school. If you had asked me a few years ago I would have told you that I didn't have any friends during those four years. I had people that I talked with in class or in the halls, I had a lunch table where I sat with people and laughed about things that I can no longer remember until tears spilled from my eyes, but I was convinced that none of them liked me all that much. And yet if you peruse my photo albums there are pictures there of me smiling in groups of people looking happy as can be. My yearbooks are signed by people that wrote personal memories and left their numbers so that we would never lose touch - they weren't simple names or generic messages scrawled on the pages out of obligation from the person that handed you their yearbook. I had a collection of senior pictures from various people. But I spent almost no time outside of school with any of these people and I'm pretty sure that no one noticed.  And yet as much as I often hurt inside I never turned to any of these people and told them how scared or lonely I was feeling.

And so during the summer between high school and college I worked and meticulously checked items off my list as I packed things to escape to college. There I told myself I would finally have friends, the kind where I wouldn't feel so lonely in their presence. I would finally have people that I wasn't so afraid of losing that I was never myself. I made friends but it took me until the middle of my freshman year to feel like I'd finally found my group. And most of the time I felt like I had friends. I could walk down the hall and hang out in someone's room and have the deep philosophical discussions that you do in college. My freshman year we established traditions - Wednesday nights we'd order pizza and watch Doogie Howser and just laugh and talk on the one night that we reserved for noting else. My sophomore year the group of us that did not study abroad lived through my roommate turning on all of us and declaring how immoral we were. They rallied to my side when I didn't get the job at the newspaper that I wanted so badly as they made me laugh through my tears at Bonnie Doon's. We took road trips and we sat to all hours of the night and talked about everything and nothing. My junior year we were a fixture in the basement smoking lounge as we played countless games of euchre to avoid studying and talked about all manner of topics. We had all countless inside jokes that I still remember to this day. A small group of us were inseparable. When we weren't together it was almost shocking to anyone that knew us. I had a still larger circle of good friends that I could turn to if needed and yet I never did - I was the together one and yet I was always on the brink of not being so even though no one knew it. My room even somehow became the party room. When I entered my senior year I did so knowing that it would be both a continuation of the fun and also bittersweet because in the end we would all part ways - hopefully forever friends but still spread out across the country. And that beginning of the year was everything I had hoped it would be. Football games, nights out at the Linebacker where I wore as many Long Island Iced Teas as I drank and long nights in the offices of the newspaper dominated my days. I suffered along with all my friends through my senior comprehensive. It holds some of my favorite stories of all time - one of mashed potatoes; one that contains Sean Astin, Vince Vaughn, Notre Dame football players and the premiere of Rudy; one with a cute boy in a blue shirt; one of a mouse, a trap and my hammer and one of the Griswold's house come to life. 

And then when I returned to school second semester of my senior year it all came crashing down. One of my roommates dropped out of school, the other was occupied with her fiance and again I was all alone in a very large room. And so the long streak of feeling like I had friends ended abruptly. And I retreated. I went to class, I went to work and I hid out in my room. I largely ignored my other friends unless they actively sought me out. I'd spend the nights when I would normally be with my friends either holed up at the newspaper working or in front of the television. And there were a few days when I wouldn't get out of bed for more than a few minutes a day. And no one noticed. All the people that I thought were my friends had no clue that for the first time in three years I was again dying inside. And I hated myself for believing that I could have friends for so long - I should have known that eventually the bottom would fall out. And I never sought anyone out to tell any of this. I figured it was a good ride and I was back to being the me that I would always be. 

And so I graduated. And again I posed on the lawn with groups of friends and smiled in pictures. And still as difficult as the second semester had been I was still sad to leave. For one of the first times in my life I had made genuine friends. Ones that I had shared some of those dark fears inside of me. Ones that saw the hurt inside of me when I wasn't even admitting it to myself. I had still held back a lot but most of the time I was me and that is why for the first time in my life I felt accepted and loved by people that were not related to me. I was sure that I would keep in touch with these friends even after we all moved away. Graduation night I went out with friends and looked around and realized that I didn't believe I'd ever have this again. College was not the world and it just seemed like it was the only environment where I would get friendship right. And as we toasted graduation and our futures and all the promise that we believed that we held I was happy for my accomplishment and sad all the same. I wasn't sure I was ready to face the real world. I didn't want to leave this group of people that knew me better than anyone ever had. And so the next day as I loaded the last box into the car and took that first ride as an alumna down The Avenue and back to the world that was always so much of a mystery to me I let the tears roll down my eyes and said goodbye to that very good chapter of my life.

And so I entered the long stretch of my life where I isolated myself and just stopped living. I could act with the best of them, but if I let my mind wander I realized that I really didn't have anyone. And the one person that had been a constant in my life for so many years - well I even stopped talking much to her. I'd email sporadically a few friends from college but there was so little on which to catch them up that I just avoided it all together. I carried on and talked to people at work but I'd go home and escape into a book or television and not really do much of anything. It almost just seemed like it was easier to not have to worry about maintaining friendships at all since so much of the time I didn't really feel like the people liked me anyway. And so I moved from day to day to day in the loneliness and isolation with which I protected myself.

And years and years passed. People would invite me places and I'd figure out a reason not to be there. Or I'd feign that I might make it knowing that I would never even try. Life just stretched on in front of me and none of it seemed like it was worth the effort. I would be there for any person that asked for aid from me - I'd listen, I'd rally, I'd help - but I never let them see that I needed the same in return. Life just seemed easier that way.

So when I finally decided that I would make changes reestablishing friendships was high on my list. I wrote long emails to those that I had touched base with from time to time. And I started making an effort. And when people asked me to do things I would show up and I found myself even initiating plans. And it felt good to surround myself with people again. The more and more people that I reconnected with that more I began to realize that either we had all changed a lot or that maybe the contempt and hate that I imagined that all these people had felt for me had been just that - imaginary. I wondered if I had been wrong all along - maybe people didn't think I was as awful of a person as I did. Maybe the loneliness that I felt was more about me and my perceptions than reality. 

When I began the slide into depression I kept that fact and those feelings very private, but I didn't push away or abandon my friends this time. And even though I wasn't leaning on them when I needed them most I found that they still seemed to support me and hold me up in ways that helped me cope for as long as I had. And as much as I now felt that most of these people actually liked me and the person that I was I still was embarrassed of how they might react to my depression so I kept it pretty private from most of those closest to me. But once I began my treatment and had met someone that I was so real with and they didn't run I decided that I would begin to test the waters. And so slowly when the situation warranted it I began to share a little more about me - and no one ran. 

And I began to realize something - I had offered up the advice several times that those that really mattered, those people that were really your friends - they would be there through it all. It wouldn't matter to them that you were politically liberal if they weren't, they wouldn't be offended if your view of spirituality didn't match their own, they wouldn't care if one time you said something that seemed insensitive because they would know you well enough to know that you valued them. Those that were offended and turned away, well they weren't the people that valued you or your friendship to begin with anyway. I hadn't taken my own advice to heart, but I was beginning to do so. I finally was coming face to face with a reality that I should have discovered for myself much earlier - people don't often surround themselves with people that they don't like. They don't seek out the advice of people if they don't respect. They don't spend hours talking to someone that they can't stand. Yes, there are times and places where people pretend, but in most instances they don't carry on the guise if it is not something they don't need to do. And if you aren't really you, if you hold back from those people that you call your friends you are only damaging yourself. If you don't talk out your problems, your fears, your insecurities and your successes then you are the one responsible for not being the type of friend that you should be because friendship is a two-way street. Friends are friends - they are the people that you choose to keep in your life - they say something about the person that you are and the person that you want to be. And for so long I had surrounded myself with the best kinds of people and I had not felt worthy of being in their circle and so I felt lonely. But, as I began to accept myself, as I began to let people know me I finally felt again like I had a circle of friends - the best of the best - and if I never accomplished anything else in my life but this I was still pretty blessed.

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