The move to Arlington VA from CA brought fears and anxiety, but my biggest heartache was leaving my friends. I knew I could replicate most other aspects of my life, but I worried my long-developed friendships were irreplaceable.
In a short series, I am compelled to write on why friendships are key, how to nurture them, who to cultivate (and who to release) and where to find them.
A compilation of 40 well-known studies on friendships gets to the heart of why developing deep connections with people outside family is so important for a good life. Longevity, intellectual stimulation, professional success and mental health are all found to be enhanced by friendships. I couldn’t find a single study that said friendships weren’t worthwhile, except for a few that centered on teenagers and how bad seeds can influence peers. It’s a pretty universal belief that friendships are good for you.
In my own life, I know that when I was the saddest, feeling the most crazed, I had few friends. As a kid, I remember feeling like a looser. I envied my younger brother Alex who always had lots of friends and didn’t exude the insecurity I felt about being liked. My first true friendships came in high school, where I joined others who felt similarly marginalized; our bonds were strengthened by feeling like outsiders. It’s so common, right? Packs of friends define themselves by the brands they wear, the playlists they create, the veganism they adopt. You begin to identify with a tribe of your own making in your teens and that tribe helps you to build up your own sense of self.
In college, you basically ONLY have your friends to depend on. I think most people sense it is in this phase of life where we intentionally build up a base of friends meant to last.
My first few weeks of college, I was sick and hospitalized. By the time I returned to the dorm, everyone seemed to have paired off. I remember feeling totally alone. In the first weeks back, I was destroyed by my preordained roommate’s wish that I move all my stuff to another dorm so her new bestie could move in. We got over it and that freshman roommate, Jen, birthed my godchildren.
Ultimately, it was my college friends who carried me through my 20s. I lived far from home throughout and it was my friend Anna who held my hand when I dislocated my knee. It was my friend Phyra who took an 8-hour train to bolster me so I could stick out my first week of school abroad. It was my friend Liz who flew across the world to read at my wedding. I naively chose a tired, cliche biblical quote about marriage, but Liz still brought tears to my eyes. It was Charly who moved in with Shane and I when our couple-hood was in its infancy. Shane and I have often said that if Charly hadn’t lived with us that first year and balanced our teeter-totter, we might not have outlasted the stress of our new adult life (it was the first year of my low-carbing and HANGRY didn’t do justice to my pre-dinner psychosis.)
When I felt the lowest in that period, I was terribly lonely. I had no real way to build friends when we moved to Chicago in 2005. I worked as a solopreneur and had no way to make friends like I did when I met Julie in Ann Arbor. It was the first time I sought therapy.
I remember walking away from a session, having paid $150 and realized that I just paid for friendship. I called my friend Jenn and felt more heard in that free call than I did with the therapist. Very quickly, I did the cost-benefit analysis for my newly minted M.B.A. husband and we agreed we could move to costly California, where I had friends without the hefty payout.
My spirits soared immediately after the move ‘home.’ I had pre-built bonds: Jenn to walk the reservoir with, Steve, to cry with while eating Chinese, another Jen to write a reference letter to Jack’s adoption agency.
By my 30s, the bulk of my time was spent entrenched with my work besties, my work husband Travis, my second sister and colleague Kelsey. Despite the relentlessness and guilt of new parenthood and stressful career challenges, I was cheerful. I had authentic, strong friendships. But having built up my community around work, I was crushed when I left that career.
Having attached my sense of belonging to a family of co-workers, I had inadvertently neglected my other friendships. A few weeks into my ‘early’ retirement, I recognized the familiar depression I had experienced as an isolate before. I dove head-first into cultivating new companions. Acquaintances became confidantes, yoga partners became buddies who texted at night to remind each other of our proscribed bedtimes. I developed loving unions with other stay at home moms, moms who I had never had the opportunity to know deeply when I was in conference rooms.
The last 4 years I have felt more peace, wisdom and calm than in any other sustained period in my life. Don’t misunderstand: I have lost my fucking mind with Jack too many times to mention. I held my dad’s hand waiting for his death. I swabbed out mucus from a wound so deep in my mom’s boob that I almost lost a tweezer in the cavity. These haven’t been easy times. But the day my dad died, my friends Samantha and Tiffany left flowers on my doorstep. Colleen held my hand when I told her about my mom’s cancer. “Oh HONEY,” she said over and over until I wept in her long, curly hair. Those days when my voice was hoarse from yelling at Jack, I called up friend and friend and confessed my sins.
The periods in our lives which are painful or tough are common and unavoidable. But if we turn the pain into suffering it’s because we haven’t tapped the vital friendship well. A circle of friends is too easy to dismiss, forget or put on the back burner. But I am telling you people, real connections with friends are essential for a well-lived, fulfilling and meaningful life.
There was a parable I heard a few years ago. Two friends are walking on a beach and are facing an army of threats coming after them. One friend trips into a sand hole. A good friend reaches out her hand to help that friend up out of the trap. A GREAT friend turns to her dear one and says, “Stay here babe, I got this.” Life is so much sweeter with those spirits by our sides.