I have never made friends very easily. Part of this is probably due to my background; my family moved from Ohio to England when I was 7, to Spain at 8, to Germany at 9, to Michigan at 11, to Nebraska at 13, I went to college in Ohio from 1998-2002, and graduated only to find my family had moved to Missouri. Without any long-term roots, or long stays in most places, it was hard to connect to other kids well enough to make many friends. It was only really when I moved to Omaha that I formed friendships that lasted longer than a year or two.
Some of my issues with friendship are also probably rooted in my introversion. I am a shy person; I keep to myself more often than not. Being in the company of too many people who I am not close with and yet am expected to interact with is physically exhausting for me. There have been many days after graduate classes and meetings where I have come home feeling more tired than after any physical workout I have ever had. I am more familiar with books than with people, and I find the anonymity and distance of online chatting much less stressful than face-to-face meetings.
Yet, in a bizarre twist of fate, I have found -through long and often unpleasant experience – that I need to be aroud people. Not just any people, either, but people I have gotten or am getting to know. Without some kind of regular, friendly, social interaction, I become withdrawn, isolated, sullen, easily distracted, and depressed. And so I must seek out people to be around, which is made difgicult by my social awkwardness. When I am getting to know someone, I tend to have little idea about how to sustain a conversation; my fear of seeming stupid often causes me to leave awkward silences and have conversations end abruptly as I mentally fumble for things to say. This tends to throw people off, and often results in a relationship that never exteds beyond the casual acquaintance stage. What is worse is that sometimes I will just find a quiet corner and pretend to be invisible, observing rather than interacting, before eventually becoming bored of being ignored (even if that seems to be my goal) and leaving.
It is hard to break through my shell, especially when I start employing my primary defense mechanisms: using humor to avoid personal revelations, or being vague and non-specific when I feel challenged or confronted. Eventually, though, a few people, whether through perseverance on their part or an intentional (and very draining) lowering of my barriers, manage to befriend me. Then I seem to become an entirely different person. I make jokes, reveal a very dry and active sense of humor, make strange noises and faces, talk excitedly about my interests, and becme extremely trusting. With people I consider friends, there is almost no length I will not go to in order to help them. I trust them implicitly, and maintain a fierce sense of loyalty. Loyalty to my friends, it has been noted, is my primary, overriding moral concern and value. I am generous and kind, and I feel free to relax and do things like sing karaoke or for Rock Band. While I still have my moody moments, I am willing to talk to friends openly and earnestly about my problems.
Well, forthe most part. For my most recent suicide attempt, I had been planning it for over a month; I had rented a hotel room, had a will prepared, stockpiled my sleeping pills, and concocted a believable story. What had led up to this attempt is a long story for another post, but it involved multiple long-term, very complex lies told primarily to my family, but also to my friends. See, I feared that my lies would be found out by my family if they spoke to my friends and discovered that my friends knew the truth; so, in order to continue my lies, I felt I had to tell them to everyone. At the time, it seemed reasonable and pragmatic, though now I realize that it was my fear of rejection and depression that was in my mental driver’s seat (they were co-pilots). Still, this was a betrayal of my friends and my loyalty to them, and the guilt from the continued lies was a contributory factor in my suicide attempt.
Perhaps the most difficult task that I gave myself upon coming to Menninger was that I would be utterly open and honest with my peers and my team. For an introvert like me, this was like open-heart surgery without anesthesia; I was constantly anxious, I sweated like I was running a marathon, and I agonized over what to say. But my openness and honesty, combined with the knowledge of shared experiences and the constant contact with peers, slowly bore fruit. I spoke about things in group psychotherapy I had never mentioned before; I connected with people who wanted to know more about me, and I reached out to peers who looked like they needed friendly contact. I got to know all of my peers, and developed close friendships with quite a few of them. As friends started to leave – their time at the clinic ending before mine – I looked for new people to interact with, even while grieving for the friends I might never see again. I was seen as such a pillar of the unit that I became first the vice-president, then president, of patient government.
I wasn’t totally successful, of course. I still had some major problems, like with my roommate – who stayed up several hours later than I did, left all his lights on, and couldn’t move quietly at all – and a peer who came in late in my stay at the clinic who I found to be smug, offensive, and totally ignorant of the personal boundaries of others. I never worked up the will to confront either of them, which bothers me even now. And a lack of helpful introspection made it hard for me to talk about some things, especially with people I wasn’t quite familiar with. But my openness and emotional vulnerability – though exceptionally painful and difficult – has paid off; I have made a number of good friends who I am proud to know, and we have helped each other through very harsh parts of our therapy. Even those who have left, I try to keep in contact with, and those who are here at the step-down program are happy to have me around, and I feel the same.
So, am I the same person who left St. Louis? The one with no close friends, despite a number of acquaintances, in the area? I’m not sure. Maybe the shared experiences of my peers at Menninger made friendship easier, and maybe the close quarters facilitated a more social environment. Maybe I will feel the same reluctance to reach out to others as I did before. But then, maybe not; maybe my self-confidence has been raised to a point where I feel like I can invite someone out to a movie, or just have an in-depth conversation about the merits of various RPG systems, without a paralyzing fear of rejection. I suppose only time will tell.