“Lots of people want to ride with you in the limo, but what you want is someone who will take the bus with you when the limo breaks down.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
It has occurred to me recently that I haven’t heard from a number of people who I used to be very close to in a good long while. In the last year, since I got sick, they’ve slowly disappeared.
I know that’s something that happens to everyone, especially when things get rough, but a few of these are people I’ve known for so many years that I can’t remember a time before they came into my life, and never imagined there’d come a time when they would leave it. With all the history that’s gone between us I feel as though I’ve lost some little pieces of my identity.
I think I’ve reached an age now where I understand why old people always say that you should hold on to the people who knew you when you were young.
It’s not that I’m not grateful for, and appreciate of, the people who’ve been here for me, far from it, it’s just that ones who drift away always leave a sort of lingering question mark behind. What was it that made them leave your life, was it because of you or because of them?
On bad days I imagine the worst, that they didn’t want to know me anymore because I’m broken, because of the stigma of my mental ill-health. They thought I’d turned into a crazy weirdo and they didn’t want to have to deal with me any more. The rest of the time I know that it’s unlikely to be anything as ominous as all that. Friendship tends to fade for two reasons; either life simply gets in the way, or something happens in the life of one party about which the other does not know what to say.
The sad thing about the latter scenario is that there are very few situations in life where there is a clear and definite right thing to say.
Unless you’re being asked whether you packed your own bag before checking it on to a flight, or whether you’ve ever been involved with terrorism or people trafficking when applying for a visa, the act of communication usually matters far more than the exact words that are used.
But we don’t like being at a loss for words, it takes us outside of our comfort zone and makes us feel awkward. And we’re so used to trying as best we can to avoid awkward situations that we can end up doing so even where it means not being supportive enough of the people we’ve led to expect we’ll be there for them.
It something I’ve seen happen many times, to myself, to my friends, and to client’s at work, and heard about frequently from callers to the Samaritans. Someone is seriously ill, experiencing a bereavement, recovering from an attack, or under investigation by the police, and those who were close to them are suddenly no longer there. And the uncertainty of not knowing why they’re not there, and the feeling of isolation, just add to the stress of it all.
Because we don’t like uncertainty either. Our minds hastily try to fill in the blanks, and our fears about why bad things happen are nearly always worse than the truth. We imagine we’ve been rejected when in reality the other person just doesn’t know what to say to us.
Which is why what we, as friends or family, really ought to do in such situations is just say something. Anything. Literally the first thing that comes into your head should cover it. Even if it seems that anything you can think of might come across as inappropriate or insensitive – at least you’ll get credit for trying.
When I was seventeen my grandma died; and so my friend J called me, ostensibly to sympathise, but all she really managed was to tell me that at least my grandma had lived twenty years longer than her grandma, who had died five years earlier, and so it wasn’t really as sad that mine was dead.
Now, at the time, admittedly, I didn’t find this especially helpful, but it was the people who didn’t bother to call who actually hurt me. I felt that they’d made a conscious decision to turn their backs on me, where in reality they were only teenagers and probably just didn’t know what to say.
More than a decade later, I appreciate the fact that J loved me enough to have wanted to try, and that she felt secure enough in our relationship that she never thought to worry that whatever she did say might harm our friendship.
I count J as one of my oldest friends, I went to her youngest child’s birthday party last week. As to the people who didn’t call, well, I can just about picture their faces but I’ve long since forgotten their names.
Because for any kind of relationship to endure you both need to be willing to speak up and just say something when it really matters.