I was headed downtown to a party celebrating my city’s top creative talent. My friend had been nominated for her radio show and I was meeting her there. I was riding with two other friends. “What’s the name of your friend’s show?” one asked.
I paused. “I don’t know!” I said. “Oh my gosh, I’m a terrible friend.”
“Yeah, you are,” she said, teasingly but with just enough sincerity that I realized my true sin.
I didn’t know the name of my friend’s show because I’d never listened to it. I wanted to go downtown and support something that I knew nothing about. I was performing friendship rather than enacting it.
I was a terrible friend.
These days, it’s hard to develop or maintain adult friendships. We’re all so consumed by work and family, and our schedules rarely match up. I have a lot of performer friends who spend all their non-working hours rehearsing for shows, a lot of parent friends who are consumed by child-rearing, and a lot of longtime friends who are in different states or even countries. However, that’s no excuse for my lack of knowledge about what many of my friends do for a living, to whom they are married, or the names of their children. And at this point, I’m afraid to ask.
Recently, I learned that my best friend from childhood was diagnosed with leukemia. We had barely spoken throughout our adult years. I knew that she’d had a relatively charmed life and I once wrote to her about my struggles, apologizing for my lack of contact. When I last saw her in person a few years ago, we picked up right where we left off in our friendship. However, long-distance relationships of any kind are hard. I know she doesn’t think of me the way she does of her other childhood friends — the ones who kept in touch. Learning that she was so sick brought me to tears, and yet my messages to her fell on deaf ears.
I’d abandoned any opportunity to comfort or support her. She wanted nothing to do with me, and I couldn’t blame her.
I’m the first to admit that I’m a terrible friend. And while it’s no excuse, it’s because I’ve been burned so badly. My best friend in college became my abusive roommate who poured salt into my almond milk and helped set up my boyfriend with the woman he cheated on me with. My next roommate ran a reign of terror, forcing me to sleep on the floor by stealing my mattress and screaming at me whenever I made the slightest transgression. Later on, the woman with whom I’d co-founded a dance troupe suddenly decided that she’d rather run the show herself, and kicked me out, then smeared my name to everyone who would listen.
I have trust issues.
Throughout my twenties, I watched How I Met Your Mother and wished that I could have a close group of friends like that. So many of my friendships were tied to my various jobs that it was hard to cultivate a connection outside of work. I’ve gotten used to being unfriended on Facebook by former coworkers or exchanging awkward pleasantries with a work friend whom I run into in the real world. I realized that I am the type to have work friends and boyfriends, and few other types of friends.
My dearest friends are scattered among the realms of my life. They will never meet and hang out, and the last party I attempted to throw was a true character study in disjointed friend groups.
Even my closest friends aren’t ones in whom I feel comfortable confiding. It has nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I feel nervous about potentially burdening people, and so I’ve thrown up walls that prevent people from getting to know me. Each toxic “friend” gaslit me into thinking that I was the problem, and deep down, I’m scared of letting that injected poison affect other people.
I’m not only a terrible friend, I’m an inaccessible friend.
I’m working on being more open and connecting with people. It involves a lot of unlearning of that internalized toxicity and low self-esteem. I do care about my friends, but I’m not good at asking them how they are. I want them to succeed, but I’m limiting myself to tapping the “heart” reaction on Facebook rather than leaving them best wishes. I want to trust them, but I’m too scared to trust anyone, even myself.
My new method is to devote a portion of each day to connecting with people, whether it’s by sending messages to old friends or reaching out to new people. I’ve had to learn to accept the rejections: After so many years, not everyone even remembers my name, even if we used to hang out all the time. I’ve also learned to nurture budding friendships, and despite all the complaints about social media, I find it works wonders to simply pay attention to what someone posts on Facebook or Instagram.
We’re all so caught up in ourselves in our bootstrap culture hurtling forward at breakneck speed. We’ve all succumbed to the grind rather than those delicious moments of slowed-down connection. And we’re all hurting from relationships that soured. Perhaps, we can rediscover the type of friendship we had as children, when we found someone we liked and immediately swapped friendship bracelets. How great would it be if we set aside the daily hustle in the name of genuine connection?
Perhaps, this weekend, I’ll go to a pub and strike up a conversation with a stranger. Perhaps I’ll join a gaming circle or animal rescue group and meet some new people. Perhaps I’ll take some time to listen to my friend’s radio show. Perhaps, I’ll overcome my fear of connection and open my heart to true friendship.