Stories for Lent: #22 Friendship

I hate it when people ask me about my social life. Family, doctors, even a faith chaplain, they all have this way of inquiring after my friends that immediately puts me on the defensive. “How’re your friends?” “Have you any friends?” “Have you tried to be more social and make more friends?”

Thanks, people. And no, right now, there aren’t any friends in my immediate life that I feel particularly close to.

I’m not proud to say that. I’m not about to give you a “manifesto of extreme introversion”, nor will I complain how everyone in my life is abandoning me, because one – it’s not true, and two – that is the sort of self-pity I reserve for journal venting, where it’s safe and I can work through whatever episode I’m having in private.

I’m not proud of the fact that all my friendships are contingent on long-distance or work or other interests, and I cannot see anybody outside of those interests. I’m not happy that anyone I can call “my best friend” lives thousands of miles away. I’m not at all pleased that I can count on one hand the decent conversations I’ve had all week because it’s the bloody holidays and I work from home.

But I’m also trying really hard not to be ashamed of that, either.

*

Whenever I find myself bored or unsure what to do, I go to Google and look up fun activities in my area. Aerial silks. Piano lessons. Art groups. Writers’ circles. Tango classes. Anything to get me out of the house and through the holidays. I’ve done all of these things at some points in my life and I miss them terribly, and yet, I always find a good reason not to go. Too far away. Too expensive. No point of signing up if I don’t have an instrument to practice on. And every time I make an excuse, I feel like crap, like I’ve proven that I’m not motivated enough to make something work for me.

When I was younger, I used to make huge efforts to fit into groups. I would force myself to go out, hang out, do the things they did, like the things they liked. I would do the work, and I would still feel like a giant fraud. I would accept the values of the group, but I would never be fully part of it. When I left, the hole behind me closed up and nobody tried to see what I’m doing after I moved on. It left me feeling sadder than I was at the beginning.

One of the handful of conversations last week was with a chaplain at my university, who seemed only too keen to extrapolate on the wider issues of society from my personal narrative than focus on what I was saying myself (and dude, I know I didn’t say so then, but over-thinking things is my job – you’re not supposed to make me even more confused). He also asked me if I tried being more social, made a more concentrated effort to talk to people. He pointed out that our society is teaching young people to rely too much on immediate gratification, almost that we don’t appreciate the need for waiting. Which… honestly, made me more confused than ever. (Like, dude, what is it: that I need to be more social to make friends, but that I also need to appreciate waiting and working for something? Or are you telling me that other people won’t be friends with me unless I’m constantly reminding them of my presence, and that sucks because… society? General comments about what is unfair in the world doesn’t help me work out what is helpful – in fact, it just makes me more depressed.)

Then, a few days later, I went to a meetup. The people there knew each other fairly well – if there were more new people in the group, I didn’t get a feel for that. So, being the new girl, I felt like I’d been dumped right in the middle of an ongoing conversation I wasn’t privy to, and had to work out the dynamic, figure out how to behave, what is appropriate to say, what the other people were looking for when they shared about something personal. I felt like there was an intimacy between those guys that I wasn’t part of, and my first instinct was that I had to do my best to fit in.

And then I decided not to.

I’d come to that meeting for something, and it wasn’t what I got. I wasn’t expecting to be part of a friendly reunion of souls, and I wasn’t feeling like auditioning for admittance. It felt wrong – how could I be so anti-social? How could I be so cold? – but it felt wrong to sit there, feeling increasingly irritated that, instead of doing what we came there to do, people were venting to each other, and I had no way of participating because I didn’t know them.

It brought back a ton of memories: of sitting at pubs and house parties and summer school rooms, nursing a sparkly drink while everyone else was downing beer or vodka or cheap raquia and getting more and more loose; of giving in and drinking and feeling even more disassociated; of coming to a new school to find that everybody already had their groups and there was no place for me, anywhere; of forcing myself to keep company with people I disliked for the sake of being part of a bigger social circle.

Of me, drunk and exhausted, as the Fete de la Musique in Toulouse was winding up, crying in the middle of the street, and then screaming at a kindly stranger to “laissez-moi tranquille!” All I wanted was to sleep, and there was nobody to take me home. I ended up staying at a friend’s house, leaving at the crack of dawn, as if it was a shameful one-night stand. We never spoke of my mini-meltdown again. I knew it was my fault – I’d stayed out later than I should have, drank more than I could handle, because I thought I should be a good sport, but it sucked nonetheless that nobody sought out to reassure me. I feel like I’ve been auditioning for friendship all my life, and I’ve always been found wanting.

So that time, when I found myself on another stage, I decided I’d be rude, and not try at all. As soon as I had an opening, I packed up my stuff and left.

I should point out – all of these feelings and thoughts are in my head. Nobody ever came up to me and explicitly said: You must do X, Y, and Z to be our friend (not since middle school, anyway) and whatever behaviors other people displayed, they were not displayed with the explicit intention of making me feel bad (I hope). But this is what my feelings are, what my mental landscape looks like. I would tear my feet up, running on an imaginary hamster wheel to gain people’s approval, and when I couldn’t run anymore and pulled away from that group, I would blame myself for not having done well enough, because they didn’t try to get me back.

It’s my “faulty formula” (thank you, Polly). I am drawn to disapproval. I’m drawn to exclusive groups that I can audition for.

And if I have a shred of mercy left for my feet, I have to stop auditioning. Even if that leaves me more adrift than I was at the beginning.

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