Thursday, January 23, 2014

On Loneliness: Friendships, Part 2

Note: These posts are not intended to give any offense. They are a representation of my thoughts, feelings, and perceptions at the time. AKA, if you considered yourself my friend in high school but don’t see yourself mentioned here, please don’t get mad at me.

Links to Previous Posts in This Series:

In my last post, I discussed my childhood and junior high friendships, a time when I was left abandoned by friends more than once. Today I’ll mostly be talking about my friendships in high school, a time when I felt I powerless in my friendships.

In high school, I did a better job of making friends than I had when I was younger, especially during my junior and senior years, when I started to come out of my shell (and, thereby, gained a lot of acquaintance friends). My first close friends were two sisters whom I will give the nicknames Red and Jean because their initials happen to coincide with friends referred to in my last post. Red and Jean weren’t sisters by blood. Jean’s father was dating Red’s mother. They and several siblings all lived together as a big, blended family.

Red and Jean were rather “worldly” in comparison to me. Both of them had older boyfriends (brothers, actually, if I recall correctly). They’d had, and knew a lot about, sex. They drank. Red got multiple tattoos while we were still teenagers. I’m sure that most adults looked at them and saw trouble. I wouldn’t say that they were “wild” per se, but even as a kid I understood that I couldn’t be like them if I ever wanted to escape the small-town life that I so hated.

People must have wondered what a goody two-shoes like me was doing hanging around with girls like that. In comparison to them, I was incredibly na├»ve. We weren’t the best fit as friends. We had little in common. They were kind to me, though, and encouraged me to be less shy. I was in awe of their boldness. All of the power in the relationship belonged to them, because I was so grateful for their friendship. It wasn’t like they ever tried to abuse that power, but the imbalance was there nonetheless.

I often felt starved for their attention, especially after they got serious with their boyfriends. I would have never said a word to them about it though. I was too afraid of losing their friendship. When I was sixteen, I wrote a poem about them (which I never showed them). It reads, in part: “I could never make you understand/The need I have to hold your hand/I could never hope that you would know/That I feel alone even when you touch me so.”

After all these years, those words still hurt when I read them. Perhaps unsurprisingly, my friendship with Red and Jean did not survive the high school years.

The summer I turned fifteen, I suffered through a terrible bout of anorexia. I went through it largely by myself. I think that, for the most part, it was a symptom of how out of control my life felt to me. My world was so small and constricted and I wanted so much more. I felt trapped and helpless. One of the few things I could control was what I ate. In a weird way, anorexia gave me power.

Although it only lasted a few months, it was severe. I had weighed less than 90 pounds to start. By time it was over, I was under 70. It’s very possible that I was close to death. In the end, my mother – forever suspicious of therapists – basically force-fed me and I “got over it.” Anorexia wouldn’t rear its ugly head again for six years. (On a happier note, when I moved to Portland in 1998, I finally got professional help & haven’t had a physical manifestation of the disease since. However, the mental side of anorexia is something that will require constant vigilance to keep at bay for the rest of my life.)

Sometime during my sophomore year, I believe, I became close friends with a girl I’ll call Poetry. She was yet another “troubled” girl. Like me, her troubles were more of the mental variety, and hers were more serious. Despite the pseudonym, I don’t feel comfortable delving into her problems here. Just know that they were bad enough that she was eventually sent to boarding school, where we continued a close friendship as pen pals.

Poetry definitely held all the power in our friendship. I remember feeling surprised when she first started talking to me. Why would someone cool and interesting like her want to be friends with me? With the advantage of maturity, I can now see that my problem here wasn’t my friends but me. Obviously, I had severe self-esteem issues. As I kid, though, I didn’t see it that way. I felt profoundly lucky whenever someone wanted to be my friend.

Our friendship did survive into early college, until circumstances that were essentially beyond my control created a rift. They involved a boy. It was not a love triangle, but when I was pressured to be an intermediary, I called it quits. (Sorry to be cryptic, but it’s definitely not something I want to be specific about in a public forum.) I wouldn’t speak to Poetry for years and years after that, although the wonders of social media brought us back in contact, briefly, a few years ago. Although our friendship didn’t re-blossom as I might have hoped, I can report that, at the time at least, she was doing well.

When I was a junior, I met Julie. She was new in town. She’d grown up in another part of the state, living with her mother after her parents had split. However, her mother was physically abusive and, eventually, her father got custody. I don’t recall the details of how we first met or how we became friends.

Julie was a self-described “weirdo.” She liked all the same uncool sci fi & fantasy stuff that I liked. She was loud & obnoxious (igniting, I think, my life-long love for people who are loud & obnoxious). Despite everything she’d been through, she was a strong, confident person who knew what she wanted. She knew who she was. She genuinely didn’t care what other people thought of her. That was mind-blowing to my teenaged self. I really admired her.

Even so, there was a definite power imbalance in our relationship. Like all the other girls, I felt like she was doing me a favor by being my friend. It never occurred to me that my friendship was also valuable. Remember, self-esteem issues = me. I didn’t like myself in high school, so it was difficult for me to understand why anyone else would. Also, by that point, two of my best friends had already abandoned me. It seemed like something that could and would happen to me again at any moment. I spent a lot of my teen years feeling so desperately needy. I suppose a lot of people felt that way, but I didn’t understand that at the time. I felt alone.

As many of you know, my friendship with Julie has a tragic ending. After high school, we drifted apart. Her life took some truly wacky turns, leaving it difficult for me to relate to her. Honestly, I was kind of a judgmental asshole for a while. I eventually got over it and we had just begun to rebuild a friendship when, nearly ten years ago now, she was killed in a horseback riding accident. I still miss her like crazy.

Compared to my earlier years, college was a cakewalk. I grew up a lot in college. I learned to start liking myself (although that would be a lesson I’d have to learn over and over again for YEARS). I learned that others will like you for who you are and, if they don’t, that they’re not people you should be wasting your time on. I learned that you don’t have to be friends with everyone who wants to be friends with you.

I made friends easily in college. Perhaps that seems like an anti-climactic way to end this post, but it’s the truth. While many of the friends I made were of the superficial sort, more acquaintances than anything else, there were several others whose friendships I still have and cherish.

College was a good time but it didn't magically make my life, or me, perfect. My troubles in general followed me into adulthood. So too did my troubles with friendship. In the next installment of this series, we'll see how my friendships evolved as I aged.


Cindy M. said...

Your friendship is incredibly valuable. Anyone who doesn't know that is missing out. I feel very lucky to know you and I miss you so much. It's quite pathetic, really. I hope you're doing well and remember your worth.

Patricia said...

While I had the whole friendship thing figured out by high school, I was incredibly not confident in the boy arena. Like you, and your friends, I was always surprised when a boy liked me back, or even acknowledged my existence. I remember exclaiming, "He remembered my name!" about a boy to my friend Jenn and she blew my mind by saying, "of course he did, didn't you remember HIS name?"

I never thought of it that way.

Patricia said...

Also! 70 pounds! I'm glad your mother did SOMETHING even if it wasn't standard best practices. That's such a bugger of a disease. We've got a former student who is in treatment right now. It's very depressing.

balyien said...

Sweet Pea - Thanks. Your kindness is one of the big reasons why you're still one of my most valued friends after all these years. I miss you too.

P - I know! It's pretty scary to think about how skinny I got. I remember even feeling scared at the time, and understanding that things had gotten way out of control. I think that's why, when my mom forced me to eat, it worked. I wanted to eat but felt better about it when I had someone else to blame. Still, it wasn't a valid response in terms of my mental health. I'm glad your former student is getting professional treatment.

lostindustrial said...

Again I'm blown away by how similar our experience has been in regard to friendships and our experiences of them. I feel like I had "imbalanced" friendships too. I was attracted to cool, confident people who always had some excitement going on. If any of those people paid me any attention, I was thrilled, and felt as if I was always "chasing" them afterwards (to some extent, I still do). Always hungry for more - even if their treatment of me could be considered less than nice. I too felt lucky that anyone would want to be my friend.

I'm glad you realized later that your relationships were not as imbalanced as you perceived them to be. You probably did have a "calming" or "stabilizing" effect on your friends. I think that's part of the reason they were drawn to you. A little island of sensibility and respite in a hurricane of craziness.

I was a bit surprised to read about the Anorexia....I'm glad you have got treatment and are doing much better now. While I never had it, I was often accused of such because I also weighed about 90 pounds in high school - and for quite a while after too. I couldn't gain weight no matter how hard I tried (which really wasn't much to be honest) It caused a real chip on my shoulder about my weight though. I didn't like how thin I was and was upset that everyone thought I had it when I didn't.

Weirdly though, I identify with those who actually have/had it, because I was also unhappy with my body, and had to endure teasing because of how I looked.

balyien said...

Yeah, I don't talk about the anorexia much anymore just because it no longer feels like something that defines me as a person. When I was younger, and closer to when it happened, it felt so huge, like something I would never get over. That's faded over time. Occasionally, I'll read a book about it but even that is rare nowadays.

I've been very skinny my whole life. I remember in junior high, kids made fun of me because my legs were so thin that I looked like I was wearing bell bottoms even when I was wearing regular jeans (bell bottoms were considered very uncool in the 1980s). I didn't realize it at the time, but once I got in therapy when I was older, I came to understand that it was about control.

Sometimes I still feel like I'm chasing after the "cooler" kids too. I guess some things you just never quite get over.