Oh man, this was a rough lesson to learn. With so many different types of friendships, if you’re not shown or told how to navigate them, it can be a confusing task to manage on your own. Friendships can be especially confusing if you’re not used to being in healthy forms of them. My motto through my teenage years and twenties was, “bridges are for burning”. And not surprisingly, I ended up with few people I could call my friends after I finally pushed everyone away. I’m still amazed that the few people who actually did stick around, even through my neglecting our relationship to the point of not talking to anyone I knew for years, decided to stand by me. And to them, I am forever grateful. It must have been no easy task to endure the petty and neglectful ways in which I managed my friendships. And if anyone is reading this who is my friend, thank you, I’m sorry, and you are truly great friends.
But I also didn’t have many stable friends growing up. This was mostly due to my caregivers not being able to model what a healthy friendship was, or the lifestyle that would lead to lasting and loving relationships. In one case, one of my caregivers had no close friends save one, and on the other end of the spectrum, my others had many, but were rancorous in their judgements of them. I was stuck between complete isolation or being surrounded by rowdy and rancorous pettiness. These were polarizing ways of seeing the world and a very confusing place to be. So the few friendships I had, I held onto for dear life. As a way to escape the chaos that I was surrounded by. This was unhealthy too, as it set the standard for me to depend on the few relationships I kept, too much.
And this fear based way of maintaining relationships, as you’ve probably guessed, was unsustainable. The only people I was in touch with regularly were friends found for me by my then wife. I spent most of my time by myself, drinking and playing videogames. I was avoiding opening up to others due to the considerable amount of distrust I learned to have of others and by the time I was 11, I had experience the loss of a loved one to cancer while my parents were divorcing due to the stress of the event. I lost both my best friends due to more unfortunate events in their lives, and the slow decline and neglect of my family left me on my own. On top of the trauma I experienced, I had lost everybody I loved and was left completely alone to handle all of these traumatic emotions. This is and was a lot to handle for anybody, let alone a child of 11.
So I learned to distrust those closest to me, my caregivers and support network. This was the model I would later use to navigate all of my relationships, a.k.a. tactfully avoiding any type of close contact with others, especially those close in, so as not to get hurt again when they eventually decided to turn on me. This lead to, as I’ve said above, lots of beer drinking and video game playing.
When I was younger, the types of friends who I would drink and play video games with were a good time. But as we aged and life progressed, the more video games I played, the more disconnected I became from my life and the relationships in it. And this isn’t a soapbox for railing against video games or the people that play them. They can be a fun distraction and intellectually stimulating. Even bring out a sense of creativity. But I was definitely using them to avoid people. In fact, as if I were trying to tell myself as much, I was playing and replaying Zelda’s, “Ocarina of Time”. The original Zelda being the game I first played before and when all the traumatic events happened in my young life, and the premise of the latter game, “Ocarina of Time” is that of Link, the main character of the series, going back and forth through time, from his younger self to his adult self, in order to do battle with monsters from his past and present! Talk about meta! Art imitates life maybe 😉
So I managed to create a sort of comfortable cocoon to insulate myself from my role in my relationships. I say sort of comfortable because it took an immense amount of energy to keep myself so disconnected. The right amount of vice mixed with the right amount of avoidance. It was a balancing act for sure. But when I came to, I realized I had almost nothing in the way of authentic connections with friends. I was alone, and thankfully it took me a while to get scared, otherwise I’m not sure I’d have been able to handle the reality of my situation crashing down all at once.
So when I did come to, after my divorce and ending of the relationship that was the catalyst for my divorce, I had one close friend who remained loyal to me, (thanks Jon) and my parents. That was about the extent of those I had to support me. It was a sad situation to be in. Luckily I had taken to hiking which helped me to reconnect with myself a little and develop some healthy habits. This would later give me something to do with those I was trying to reconnect with. Because I first had to reconnect with myself, befriend myself. I had spent so much time running from others and burning the bridges behind me, that I could barely trust myself that I wouldn’t do that to me. This is an ongoing process of getting to know myself and trust that I’ll treat myself with respect and love. It’s also not an easy task.
This is where I discovered what my likes and dislikes are. Why I do certain things and what things mean to me. Such as certain songs, my relationship to my style and how I want to be seen. The ways I nourish myself and the care I provide for myself with meals, grooming habits and caring for my surroundings. These were the foundations of me coming to trust myself and that I have my best interests at heart. Tara Brach calls some of what I’m talking about as resources. As example, some of mine are burning candles, drinking herbal tea and listening to music. Basically whatever brings you a sense of comfort and ease. Once I was able to make acquaintance with myself again, and gain some trust in myself, I was then able to extent that practice to others.
I started out small. Like I said, I only had one friend at the time, so it was important for me to stay loyal and in touch with them. We went for hikes, got coffee and lunch together. And basically just did the normal everyday things I had previously taken for granted. We were friends in highschool and roommates in our twenties, so there was a shared history, but I had only just begun to know him as a person and as my friend. It’s been a good feeling getting to know him again and appreciating him for the person he is.
Then my friend group began to grow. Soon after I started running with an old friend from highschool every week. My other friend got married to an amazing woman and also a brilliant friend. I was also reaching out to people I hadn’t spoken to in years. Some live across the country, others a few towns over. I was amazed at how many of the people I reached out to were responsive and more over, friendly to the idea of being friends. As one friend who I recently reconnected with said, “our younger selves would have bullied our older selves for who we are”. And we were mean back then. But to know that we’ve made the change from bully to responsive and friendly adults is comforting. Knowing that the strength of our empathy and caring is stronger than the anger and bitterness of our past is reassuring more so now then ever.
Now that I’ve reconnected with so many people, and since I’m a list maker, I’ve put down the names of the friends I’m keeping in touch with on a regular basis, and some bullet points on what they’re experiencing or anticipating in the near future. This way I can open up my note and quickly see what they’ve been up to so I can check in with them and see how they’re progressing or offer some support or an ear to listen or maybe go for a walk and vent some frustrations. An example of this in practice is, I know for instance one of my friends is renoing her house. So I’ve created a board on Pinterest with ideas for her backyard living space and shared the board with her. This way we can have an ongoing conversation about what her focus is on.
On the same note, I also keep a list of upcoming plans I have. This way I won’t miss out on spending time with those I’ve been building a relationship with. It’s been helpful to have a place where I can see everything I need to know in one bird’s eye view so I can adjust and respond to those in my life with care and conscientious actions and words. This is where the rubber really meets the road in that mindfully supporting those who support you can build some seriously strong bonds. You’re there when they need you and you know what they’re going through. This is powerful for someone who is really in need of a friend.
I’ve also discovered some friends in strange places as well. I use a meditation app called Insight Timer. After you meditate you have the option of thanking those who’ve meditated while you were meditating. I’ve made a decision to choose six people to thank after every meditation. Four of them respond regularly, two respond every day, and one has become my gratitude partner. I asked them a few weeks ago if they’d like to practice gratitude with me since we were already kind of doing it by thanking each other every day. They said yes and we’ve been gratitude buddies ever since. It’s been nice knowing that I have something to look forward to in the mornings, something positive to read.
It’s been an intense but amazing journey and one definitely worth the undertaking. So if you’ve found yourself in a similar situation as I was in, do not give up hope! Reach out to old friends, you may be surprised with how they respond. Start some conversations with those closest to you. Work is a great place for this, seeing as how you are already around a select few people on a daily basis. Join an online community, like Reddit. There are loads of people out there looking to connect over shared interests. Find a place to volunteer. This way you can match your passions with your connections and do good work along the way. I met one of my friends at a grocery store. They worked there and went there almost three times a week. We’re both ginger so we hit it off immediately! And a word of advice, stay open. You never know where you are going to meet your next friend. Peace : ) and thanks for reading.