If you haven’t read the rest of this series but are interested in doing so, just click on the loneliness tag at the end of this piece.
I had a lot of fun in college. I made several good friends and scads & scads of acquaintances. It was the first time in my life when I truly felt accepted for who I was. Once I made my way into the adult, working world, however, it quickly became apparent that college had been a lovely microcosm that bore little resemblance to what life is actually like.
Upon graduation, I joined AmeriCorps. Having decided at some point during my senior year of college (rather arbitrarily) that I wanted to live in Portland, Oregon, I would have preferred a position there. However, positions in the Pacific Northwest were very in-demand and difficult to land, especially for a first year volunteer (AmeriCorps is a one-year commitment with a second-year option). I therefore settled for a position in rural Minnesota in my preferred area of interest, adult literacy.
I had a difficult time in Minnesota. The state was beautiful. The people I worked with were lovely. The work was challenging. However, I was a 22-year-old in rural Minnesota, sixty miles from the Twin Cities, and very poor. There weren’t a lot of people my age around. I was also deep in the throes of my second bout of anorexia. It was difficult to find interesting things to do. I met some really great people while I was there, people I still consider friends, but the truth is that I felt deeply isolated.
By the end of my year there, I was very depressed. My anorexia was starting to get out of control, so I was also scared. In spite of all of this, I signed up for a second year of AmeriCorps and managed to land a position in Portland, working in children’s literacy.
I arrived in Portland with high hopes. Even so, Portland and I got off to a rough start. I was still very poor, and living pretty far outside of the “happening” parts of town. Although I got into therapy for my depression and anorexia immediately, I continued to struggle. I’d felt so isolated in Minnesota that I was starved for human affection. I was giving off serious “needy” vibes. I knew it at the time but had little control over it.
My interactions with potential friends always left me dissatisfied. I felt like people didn’t like me. They probably didn’t. No one likes needy people. The more I was rejected, the more needy I became. It was a terrible cycle. It didn’t help that this was before the Internet really got popular. I had no idea how to meet people, especially people who had the same interests as me. I saw people around me – people in the same AmeriCorps program – flourishing and it was so frustrating to me that I couldn’t figure out how to do the same.
For a while, I contemplated leaving. A good friend from college had moved to nearby Seattle. I thought it might be easier to build a life in a city where I already had a friend. However, I always preferred the city of Portland itself to the city of Seattle. So I stayed. And eventually, it worked out. It took a few years, the help of my then-boyfriend, and a job change, but it worked out. Later, after people really figured out how useful the Internet is, and groups like Meet Up and Meet In started, it got easy to meet people.
In the end, I lived in Portland for 10 years and I made a lot of wonderful friends while I was there. It wasn’t always easy though. I had a couple of broken friendships, a haunting reminder of what I’d been through as a child. One of those friendships ended by my choice. The other did not. The one that didn’t was very painful for me. It’s something I still feel bad about to this day, seven years later.
I had grown up a lot in college. I grew up even more in Portland, and matured in ways I never could have expected. I re-learned two very valuable lessons about friendship, lessons I'd forgotten after college:
1. Liking yourself is more important than other people liking you. Validation from yourself is the only kind that matters.
2. You don’t have to be friends with everyone who wants to be friends with you. Pick your friends wisely.
I also learned a third lesson that I continue to find difficult to accept:
3. Very few relationships in your life – romantic or friendly – are meant to last forever.
I left Portland, a city I had grown to love deeply, to follow my newly-minted husband to Hawaii. If you’ve been following my blog, you’ll know that we’ve moved around a lot since then. In fact, there have been four major and two minor moves in about 5.5 years. It’s been exhausting physically, emotionally, and mentally. It’s also made it very difficult not only to maintain the friendships I already had, but also to build new ones.
I rarely have difficulty with meeting people anymore. As I said, the Internet has made that infinitely easier. Also, I think I’ve become a lot more fun to be around. I’m a lot happier than I used to be, and a lot less serious as well. I joke around a lot. Although I still feel lonely, I rarely feel needy. People, generally, seem to like me. However, although I easily meet and get along with lots of people, I seem to have trouble sealing the deal, so to speak. I have a hard time making the close friendships that I crave.
I think that our transient lifestyle in recent years has a lot to do with this. Unless you’re spending tons of time with a person, you’re not going to build a really deep connection in just a year or two. Some of it is a problem within me, though. Part of me will always be that person who once scared away potential friends. I’m overly conscious of appearing needy or too eager to connect. I tend to be passive when forming friendships, to let the other person make the overt gestures. Because of this, I probably give off a vibe that I’m not as interested in most friendships as I actually am.
Even when I do make what I think are deep connections, I find that, as soon as I move away, they begin to diminish. This was true even of several of the close, long-term friendships I shared in Portland. The truth is that friendships are difficult to maintain over distance. Most people aren’t willing to put in the effort. I don’t think that it’s even a conscious thing. You move, and your friends miss you and you miss them, but eventually, new people are met, new friends are made. You’re still friends, but you’re not as close as you used to be.
Frankly, this has been very disappointing for me. I suppose I’ve been naïve. I keep thinking that my friendships are going to be like ones in movies or books, true blue till the end, but it’s not reality. I think that lesson #3 above has been the toughest lesson of all, but life continues to prove it true over and over again.
A fourth lesson has come out of all this moving around. I’ve learned how to be alone without feeling lonely. Before, I kept loneliness at bay by always being busy. There was even a long stretch in Portland where I had to build alone time into my schedule. These last few years, I’ve gotten comfortable with being by myself. I’ve gotten comfortable with myself. It’s nice. It feels healthier.
Even so, I still go through periods of loneliness. It’s not a longing for interaction; it’s the same longing I’ve always had: deep connections, true blue friends. Sometimes I wonder if I’m searching for something that’s not even possible. Maybe I’ve been fooled by the social narrative. Maybe no one has the kind of friendships I’m looking for. Somehow, I’m not convinced. I think what I want is out there.
I will continue to look. I will continue to work on myself and my hang-ups. I'll probably also continue to feel frustration, but it's a price I'm willing to pay. My hope is that now we're settled for good (in theory), I'll be able to start building strong friendships. The adventure that is life marches on. Most of the time, it feels like I'm just along for the ride.