Being a grown-up certainly complicates things that used to be simple. This week was National Best Friends Day, and I have spent a lot of time thinking about that magical word friend, and the romantic visions that it brings to mind. I have many different kinds of friends and I cherish them all. I’ve made friends with people who share my interests, people I met once and felt a connection to, even people who I have only ever met online. I’ve maintained friendships with people I have known since elementary school (God bless Facebook), and I consider my family tree to be supplemented greatly by the addition of those who I am closest to. My concept and practice of friendship, however, has changed a lot over the years.
I was a pretty friendly kid — a social butterfly, according to my second grade teacher. I remember being able to make friends with whatever group of children I was thrown in with. It didn’t have to be at school, either. It could have been a playground, at Sunday school, or a family reunion. Kids are gifted that way. Any place where a bunch of kids are thrown together, you can see them form bonds of friendship almost instantaneously. It was natural. Effortless. If you shared the same interests, if played together well, that was all it took! We’d be friends for life!
Many of those friendships are temporary, though, lasting only as long as the gathering itself. If you saw that person regularly, the bond would could potentially be cemented. Looking back, I recognize that my across my lifetime, my Best Friend-ships tended to develop at the institution we shared and then shift when our circumstances changed: my elementary school BFF wasn’t my closest friend in middle school; my middle school BFF and I drifted apart in high school. My high school Best Friend is someone I still feel very close to, though we don’t talk very often. Even those other two girls — well, women, now — are still friends of mine. We’re not close as we used to be, but we’re friendly. Each of these three relationships were extremely hard-won — it takes work to remain friends after all this time, especially when you consider just how much a person changes between ages 5 and 25.
At the time, making friends with those women had been extremely easy. When I went away to college, I struggled in a way I hadn’t experienced before. I wasn’t making life-long friendships the way I had in primary school. Instead, I made many utilitarian pairings: friendships that served their purpose of camaraderie and lunch table companions only for as long as the semester lasted. It was depressing. I missed my real friends back in California, and I often wondered if I shouldn’t just give up and go home. Right around the time I started dating my now-husband, though, something coalesced, as if by magic. A group of like-minded, down-to-earth, plain ol’ good people was formed. We were a unit. Daily we took up two whole tables in the college cafeteria. We partied on weekends. We loved and supported one another like family. Those were the days.
At my twentieth birthday party — the last I would spend with my mother — she looked around the table at my assembled friends and thanked them for loving me. She commented on how worried she had been when I moved to Hawaii for college, but became increasingly isolated. When she saw me with this group of friends, her worries were put to rest. When she later became very ill and knew that she was dying, she told me to count on those friends for strength. I believe it made her passing a little gentler, knowing she didn’t have to worry about my being left alone.
But shit happens. In the years following my mother’s death I was not an easy person to be around. Many of my relationships suffered or even withered away entirely as a result. Bridges were burned. I didn’t realize at the time that mental illness had become a factor in the equation, and I wasn’t taking care of myself. Some friends were easily dissuaded by my behavior and high-tailed it to safer grounds. Mistakes were made on both sides — I see that now. There were some friends that stuck it out and loved me even when I was almost entirely unlovable, and I was truly grateful. When I started to claw my way out of the darkness, I knew that these people would be in my life forever.
But then, again, shit happens.
You know what’s worse than a break-up? A best-friendship break-up. Man, that shit is ugly. I’ve lost friends before, but never have I been as wounded by the loss of a friend as I was when I broke up with my best friend. It wasn’t like we grew apart or anything — it was a series of wrong moves and then a major blow-out, and just like the end of a relationship, the end of our friendship was long, gritty, and painful. I felt betrayed and confused, especially when I heard from the grapevine that my friend had said things that were untrue and hurtful. I had loved her like a sister, invited her into my home, and gave to her without restraint. In the end, I got burned. The experience made me gun-shy of investing the time to develop new close friendships with other women.
The end result wasn’t that different from the aftermath of a relationship break up either. Like a boyfriend/girlfriend that says, “I don’t love you anymore, but let’s stay friends”, so did we for the sake of everything that we had once been to each other. It’s a stilted kind of friendship, one in name only. In terms of adult-like friendships, “friendship in name only” is one of the saddest and most common.
Still, I am very blessed in terms of friendship. Despite having misplaced my trust in the past, I now have an amazing network of friends, here-there-and-all-around, whom I consider family. I appreciate them more, I think, than the friends I had when I was younger. I have experienced enough loss and enough isolation to know how priceless these people are. Perhaps that’s the trade off. As with many things, as children we took for granted that all life was good, believing as children do, that good must last. Grown-ups know that this isn’t true, but we also recognize that the things that you have worked to achieve have a heightened sense of value compared to those things you are just given.
Bottom line: friendship is important. Our mental health and longevity are both heavily affected by the number and quality of our friendships. The friendships we maintain as adults have enormous potential to become positive and life-fulfilling in a way that our youthful pursuits were not. As an adult, your friends take on the quality of family, particularly in a society that sees increasingly farther distances placed between close relations. In that instance, friendships take on a very vital function to provide us with all the same love and support that one’s blood relatives may not provide. These are the friendships that persist without consideration of time and distance — I don’t care if we spoke last five years or five minutes ago, you’re my family and I will love you forever. If you’re lucky, the friendships you formed when you were young will transcend to this level. If you’re really lucky, the friendships you forge as an adult will be cemented along these lines, too. How, you ask? I really can’t say. The planets have to align, the circumstances have to be just right, and even then, I think lot of it is luck.