Tuesday, February 25, 2014

On Loneliness: Friendships, Part 3

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.


Merinda K said...

Wow Jan this really hit home with me: "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."
I, too, felt this way attempting to make friends at Kendall. I want so badly to make a few close connections but always hang back in fear of looking pushy and needy. On friend in particular, who I decided to open up to rejected me the day after a heart to heart in which I thought we both connecting.
Anyway, I want to say you're not alone in all of these feelings. I do think it is difficult for us non - joiners to make friends in general and frequently I hear adults in particular make this complaint.

Patricia said...

It seems I was experiencing the same thing you did, but in Massachusetts. And for me it was the last two years of college where that started. I transferred schools and it was so difficult to meet people. And I think I was projecting those needy vibes too, which compounded things. I eventually made friends and then after college, when I moved to Boston it was even harder to find friends. I still shudder thinking of that time.

I wonder if we have been sold a bill of goods about true-blue friends? Or maybe we are just pickier? Something Karen Karbo wrote about Katherine Hepburn stuck with me. Hepburn had a life-long friend and Karbo noted that they sometimes got sick of each other and fought a lot, but they stayed friends, because that's what friends do. I think now, when people change, we aren't willing to put up with the differences anymore. Which is fine if you can find new friends, but it's something else if you can't.

One thing I've noticed is that I have friends for different things. Some friends are the movie friends, some are the work friends, some are the writing friends, some are the gardening friends. I'm not sure why I've ghettoized them that way, but I have.

I know that my problem with forming friendships is that everyone is so "busy." It's hard to get to do things with people because scheduling is so hard. And, like you, I don't like to push things too much, because I don't want to come off as needy.

Good essay.

queenbreedesigns said...

What I am deeply hurt that you didn't enjoy our many adventures into the twin cities while living in remote MN or SD ... we have always been vastly different, but I always had good times, and have tons of memories of those days and lots of fun times from college and the corps. It is funny how life moves and grows, and how easy it is to grow apart, but I also like to think it is just as easy to pick back up when you see each other again. I have grown out of touch with many old friends, and some I am sure I wouldn't recognize today, but I love the memories if I can remember them all, and this brought back some good ones even if we were alone a lot during those times right after college. I do think back to those times, and wonder what I was thinking, but I think I did a lot of growing that year too and maybe needed that alone time.

balyien said...

Merinda - Thanks for sharing! I'm sorry that your friend rejected you after you'd shared so deeply. It stings, doesn't it, and is so hard to move past. Perhaps people like you and me need to be more pushy, but I find it difficult to go against decades worth of learned behavior.

Patricia - I too had that problem when I lived in Portland (and was part of the problem myself). Everyone was always "busy." I don't think it's exclusive to Portland, but was definitely worse there than anywhere else I've lived. I think there's a lot of pressure there to be very active. Also, I too am still considering whether I expect too much or am too picky about friendships. Or perhaps I don't appreciate what I have. They're certainly questions to continue bearing in mind.

Jess - Of course, saying that it was a difficult time does not mean that no fun was had at all, and you were a large part of what was good about that year in Minnesota. I still tell people the story about getting stranded in Minneapolis and having to accept a ride from a Prince groupie, haha.

The older I've gotten, the better I've become about accepting the bad times for what they are. There has been no time in my life that has been so dark that absolutely nothing good has come out of it. There have been valuable life lessons in everything, for sure.

And I agree about re-growing old friendships. I've done that with a couple of old college friends in the last few years. It's been very gratifying. :)