I began this post here, but hadn't completed all my thoughts or gathered up my full courage to post something this honest and revealing. I decided to create a new post instead of edit and add. But there are a couple of comments in the post below this one, the first post, and I don't want that to get lost. So read here, then scroll down, and check that out. Sorry for any confusion or chaos.
In the mid-1990s, my husband and I had been married a couple of years. We both had good jobs that we liked, our house was just the right size, and all in all, we had a rich and wonderful life.
The only thing we lacked were our old friends.
When my husband and I began dating, a lot of people were Not Happy About It. Without dwelling too deeply on it, we took a lot of flack. I only need one finger to count the number of friends who were genuinely happy for us. I only need one hand to count the number of friends who sucked up their own agendas and were nice, good friends, anyway.
I clung fiercely in my heart to these people, all while I understood that it was complicated...and so I tried to not cling too hard in actuality. And I set about making new friends.
I'm a master of making new friends. I've had a lot of practice.
So on that day a little over a decade ago, I had just arrived home from work and was getting ready to run back out to meet some new friends for happy hour. When the phone rang, I assumed it was my friend from work calling to ask what I was going to wear. Back in those days, we didn't have Caller ID so picking up the phone was a calculated risk. In this case, the odds were against me.
"Hello, Julie?" a very familiar voice asked.
Four years of desperately trying to make friends with this girl flashed through my mind. Four years of trying to play her games, filter through her problems, and be a real friend. She had been my roommate freshman year. I'd had this "best friends forever just like in the movies" expectation of my roommate, which was really unreasonable considering it's completely random who you live with in the dorms. I'd spent four years sucking it up and always being the alleged "one in the wrong," the one who apologized and made nice to keep up the friendship.
My reasons why are complicated, and involve the lesson I must learn over and over again, the main lesson, the one tied, actually, to friendship. Although I understand Emily intended the topic to be a choice, for me, it's not; it's all tied together.
This girl...our friendship finally came to an end after she did something really terrible. She hurt someone else---someone I loved---in order to hurt me. I couldn't let that one go. In my mind, our confrontation was brief and quiet, and she stared at me with a smug challenging expression...happy to finally have her hatred of me out on the table.
She'd never really hated me, it was more of a hatred of everything she'd attributed to me symbolically...everything she thought she wanted. She seized on anything I did wrong and held it up as evidence, as proof of why she was justified in hating me, even though I tried so hard to be nice, and be her friend. It was really important to me to make the friendship work, last. It was important to me that she see I was a nice person, who wanted to be a good friend, and if I failed in that sometimes, well, I was only human, and I didn't mean badly. Since she stuck around as a "friend" too, surely that meant that she knew I was a nice person, a good friend, and once she worked through some issues and I finally got everything just right, we could settle into really good friends. I was encouraged by the good times we did have, the nice confidences, the laughter and bonding...the shared interests. But she must have felt differently, or viewed it differently.
I came to understand that she wanted to hurt me, and she did, over and over again. I took it, as some sort of penance, some sort of proof: see how I can forgive? See how nice I am? See what I will take to show you what this friendship means to me? The small, prickly slights, the unaccountable rudeness, the unreasonable actions...those were largely things that didn't matter enough to me. They were pinpricks that drew a small amount of blood. But her final act? That one was a sharply thrust and twisted dagger. A fatal blow to the friendship.
When I said goodbye that day, after confronting her, it was final. I felt relieved. My time of trying for her friendship was over, my days of turning the other cheek were behind me. All I wondered was why I took it, as much and as long as I did, and how many friends I could have had, how many friends I should have put this much attention to, while instead, I dedicated myself to this toxic girl and our dysfunctional relationship. And now she was calling me.
"Yes?" I said finally, as if I didn't know who it was.
"It's me," she said, inserting a little chuckle, the sort you do when you are a little uncertain but want to break the tension, "Your old roomie. It's been a couple of years, hasn't it?"
"Yeah, it's been a couple of years," I agreed. I thought about all I ought to say, such as how have you been, what have you been up to, and I thought about all I wanted to say, such as how dare you dial my number and speak my name, how dare you resurface in my life, how black is your gall. I tightened my hand on the phone and twirled the cord.
"So what have you been up to?" she finally asked.
"This and that, working, the usual," I said, unusually circumspect and succinct.
"So you got married, how's that?"
I inhaled sharply, and tried to cover it with a cough. A flurry of fury rocked me back for a moment, and I braced myself against its onslaught. Then, suddenly, it blew by and out of me, and I felt---just simply---finished. I glanced at the clock and realized my time to get ready before meeting my friends was melting away. I quit thinking about her, about the past, and focused on the present, and the future.
"It's wonderful," I said blandly.
"That's great. So listen, I just moved up here, too, for grad school."
"Really, grad school, that's great," I told her.
"I thought maybe we could get together sometime...lunch or something, maybe, catch up..."
I waited for the anger to resurface, but it didn't. Instead, I just felt a certainty, and a little sadness, like you might when you choose to let go of a balloon and watch it float away.
"You know, I'm really sorry, but no, I can't do that," I told her, my voice soft, my tone sincerely regretful.
"I guess it just...all that happened...well, I'd hoped...yeah, okay, I understand."
"So, good luck in grad school and hope it all goes well for you," I said, "And listen, I'm sorry but I need to run, I'm meeting some friends."
"Sure," she said, "Okay. Well, goodbye."
Although that was the last time we ever spoke, it wasn't the last time I ended up with a toxic friend. Over and over again, I chose as friends people who could and would hurt me. Over and over again, I set myself into friendships that were unbalanced. Over and over again, I called people friend who tended to think of me more as a resource than a buddy. Over and over again I'd bend over backwards to do my best to be there for my friend, and be disappointed and heartbroken when it wasn't reciprocated. Over and over again, I'd go up and down with friends.
It didn't seem right, but I told myself that maybe that's the way things are, realistically. I'd moved so often I'd never had to deal with friendship over a long span of time. I imagined that with so many fresh starts, I'd just never figured out how to weather the ups and downs that had to be a normal part of friendship.
I'd never really been good at living in the moment, in the here and now. I was always eyes set forward, and I figured too many times I probably barreled right past someone, maybe even a friend, without slowing down and seeing what the friend might need from me.
Or does it just seem that way retrospectively? Did my youth fly by that quickly? Was it as big a rush as it seems now? Was I any more selfish than the average young person? Any worse a friend?
I reviewed each friendship in depth in my mind, searching for clues, signals, flaws, signs...something, anything that could help me understand what was going wrong. I decided there is always room for improvement. So I re-dedicated myself to being a Giving friend, a There For You friend. Indispensable...that's a good way to guarantee a friendship, isn't it.
It's ironic, isn't it, how selfless that sounds when in truth, it was all pretty selfish.
I was, once again, more motivated by what I thought, what I thought the other person needed. I was talking and doing too much, and listening too little.
I fully blamed myself for every failed friendship.
With time, I slowly began seeing the signs. The "blame" (for lack of a better word) was shared. The main point was that, over and over again, I didn't like myself enough to believe that other people could like me. Over and over again, I didn't trust, or believe, that I would be liked, for myself, as I am. Over and over again, I didn't value myself, make others value me.
As a result, I messed up. A lot. I misunderstood friendship, and misunderstood people I called friends.
I called people friends who were really simply people I knew. Many friends and (as I now call them) friends-lite were more circumstantial friendships, and when the circumstances changed, the friendship faded too. In fact, I think by and large the vast majority of my friendships have been---and probably are---more friends-lite and circumstantial.
Like buddies at summer camp. You bond during that time and then...move on.
With time, I've discovered a peace about that. Instead of feeling grief, anger, frustration, confusion, and self-castigation, I've settled into a gratitude that I had those people in those times, when I needed them. I feel it as a blessing, instead of a curse.
Sometimes, something happens, even now, that reminds me of my old college roommate and that negative friendship. I find myself starting to get sucked into that pattern. My mind begins reeling around the same old questions from years ago, about friends, trust, give and take, and balance.
Then I remember the lesson, the one about friends---having a friend, being a friend, being a friend to myself---that I seem to need to learn over and over again, the one I've finally comprehended but that I still need a reminder about every so often.
I remember people can like me, for me...because of who I am, not in spite of it. And if they don't, that's okay. They don't have to. I don't have to like everyone, either. We don't all have to be friends, and it's okay to draw boundaries and be honest. It's also okay to not say everything.
It's fortunate to have circumstantial friends and friends-lite, as well as to have memories of old friends and the joy of making new friends. But the real blessing in friendship is to know the people who are real friends, and to put your time there.
Here's what other have to say about old and new friends...and/or lessons they learn again and again:
Copyright 2007 Julie Pippert
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