*hugs* I know how you feel. I have a couple of people I think of as close friends and who I’m incredibly grateful for (& also a bunch of casual acquaintances I’m creepily overly attached to), but they’re all people I met in the past 5 to 10 years. Definitely no one from my childhood; no Diana Barry to my Anne Shirley. They’re also all people I’m in touch with sporadically rather than every day, because they all have really busy lives. I’m not saying this bitterly or resentfully – I’m so very grateful for the time they do make for me. But that’s what really scared me about the NYT piece: I don’t know that I’ll be put in a position where I’m thrown together with people on a daily basis ever again; where I have an “excuse” to be in their lives and don’t feel like I’m trespassing or forcing myself on them. And it can be really hard not to let fear paralyse you and end up drifting apart otherwise.
I also know exactly what you mean about being an introvert who is painfully shy to boot and who has trouble finding people with similar interests (add social anxiety to the mix and the result is no fun). Honestly, all the way until the end of middle school I was pretty unlucky with my peers. I was the sole nerdy, quiet bookworm around, I was bullied horribly, and it’s no wonder at all I didn’t form any deeper or lasting connections. When I was in high school and college I did meet people I connected with, people whose friendship had a huge impact on me and helped make me the person I am today. But once again, I have sucked at keeping in touch. The reason why all this stuff has been on my mind lately is exactly that I’m having trouble figuring how to keep social ties alive when life has isolated me and put me in a position where any interactions I have with people are going to have to be deliberate rather than casual (well, that and the fact that I read this really great book by Aidan Chambers called Dying to Know You).
It’s extra hard to be outgoing when my life is in tatters and I’m not really part of any formalised social contexts. Also, I seem to have run out of ways to answer the question “how are you?” that aren’t deeply embarrassing for everyone involved. I slip into this pattern where I’m either evasive and end up feeling like I’m not connecting to anyone, or (sadly much more frequently) I talk about myself way too much. It’s embarrassing to admit this, but I have pushed so many kind, generous, giving people to the very brink of their patience by complaining about the same things over and over and over again, like some sort of scratched record. And it’s like, I know I’m doing it but I can’t seem to stop; I lose sight of how much is too much and somehow momentarily convince myself that all that dumping of my problems on other people is not hugely inappropriate. And then I feel incredibly ashamed of myself but can’t find a way to apologise that won’t put the other person on the spot or make things awkward for them, because naturally they’ll want to spare my feelings and say that no, of course it’s not inappropriate.
I honestly believe that it’s completely legitimate for other people to decide that being friends with someone who’s depressed, unemployed and adrift, takes far more than they give, and is basically a lot of work pushes them too far out of their comfort zone. It’s okay not to have the emotional availability for something like that, and no one owes me, or anyone else, absolutely anything. But it’s also complicated, because very often people are going to feel guilty or like fair-weather friends if they step back, even if that’s something they really need to do for themselves. The fact that I love them and don’t feel entitled to their time is the reason why I try extra hard to pick up on those cues and respect their limits, even though this doesn’t come naturally to me at all (I don’t have the best social skills). But as much as you hate it, you can’t make that feeling of obligation go away, and that makes you feel guilty in return. Basically, I’m no fun to be around lately, and I really have to figure out how to stop this, how to be a more giving and a less demanding person, both for my sake and for the sake of all the people I care about. (Even this tl;dr answer is a perfect example of this tendency of mine – you asked me a simple question and here I am, going on and on about all my woes.)
Anyway, you know what I really wish? I wish there were more open conversations about how people form and handle their friendships. I wish there was some sort of cultural blueprint I could compare my experiences to, like there is for love and family ties. I’m sure other people have had similar struggles, but I can’t seem to find much about it, not even in fiction. The world seems to believe that friendship is a lesser appendix to romantic love and family relationships, and that as such it doesn’t deserve the same kind of cultural prominence and attention and detailed analysis the other two get. It’s rare to find fictional portrayals of friendship that do justice to the fact that it matters, that it can be hugely complex, that just like any other relationship it can take work and deliberation and time to figure out. And there are so many cultural myths about it, especially gendered ones (case in point). I know this is the case for romantic love as well, but with love I seem to have done a better job of finding stories that are true to my experiences and make me feel less freakish. Fiction is how I learn to navigate the world, after all, but I still haven’t found very many stories that were able to help me figure out how to do right by the small handful of friends that I love. Stories like that would help me feel, as you so well put it, less terrifyingly alone.
tl;dr: I do know what you mean. Really connecting to people and keeping those connections alive over long periods of time is both miraculous and really hard. Now I’ll go crawl into a hole and feel mortified for five hours for having posted something so personal.