When I was 9 years old, I vividly remember standing in the four square court with one half of a Best Friend necklace.
“You’re my best friend in the world,” as I handed Gretchen one half of the necklace, while I gripped the other half in my small hand. “Don’t tell Lauren, though. I hate her,” I said.
A week later, I found myself having a similar conversation.
“Lauren, YOU’RE my best friend,” as I handed her a replica of the same friendship bracelet circling my own small wrist. “Is Gretchen invited to your sleepover this weekend? I hope not. I can’t stand her,” I told Lauren.
*NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED BECAUSE, ZOMG, CHILDHOOD DRAMA.*
For as long as I can remember, friendships for me have been…complicated. I wasn’t raised an only child, but given the 11-year age gap between my brothers and myself – and the fact that they drifted in and out of the home often – it often felt as if I grew up alone. Without siblings near my own age, I couldn’t practice the art of navigating friendships on anyone other than those at school. And often, I failed. Hard.
At home, I got used to being the center of attention – even when my brothers were home, I often got the sense that a lot of things revolved around me. They didn’t, of course, but I was the youngest, and the only girl, and I developed an overinflated sense of self that, if I was being completely honest, I haven’t totally abandoned. Or, rather, it hasn’t totally abandoned me. Who we are as children, is often who we are as adults. We change, but only a little.
As a kid, I often saw my friendship to someone as a prize – you’re lucky to be my friend, I would think. I didn’t really think that, of course – I was so clearly compensating for a canyon of insecurity within myself – but my friendships quickly became conditional, and carefully controlled.
I was constantly testing the limit of those friendships. How much do you love me? Show me how much you love me. I would demand it, every day. The more they did, the more evidence they showed, the more worth I seemed to earn.
I wasn’t lacking for love* at home (my parents adore me, and I them), but the situations that my brothers often found themselves in demanded my parents attention so often that I had to seek it elsewhere (read: it took a lot of therapy for Dr. Rosenthal and me to figure that one out). I felt a lack of control with relationships at home – particularly with one of brothers, for those who know our story well – so I was desperate to control my friendships.
(*Let me be clear – I was/am incredibly blessed for the most loving and attentive parents. The point being that for someone who needed the amount of attention that I did, I was often competing with my siblings whose issues often overshadowed mine.)
It’s not totally surprising that most 9 year olds have conditional friendships – kids are such dicks, man – but in looking back, my own ego seems particularly obnoxious.
Over the years, it’s softened. I’ve softened. It was in college that I truly understood what it meant to be a friend. I could write endless posts about the trajectory of college relationships, but in a very small nutshell: I grew up, and I gained perspective. I grew to understand humility, grew to understand my own insignificance. I learned how to contain my ego, though not always my insecurity. We change, but only a little.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve earned the friendships of an incredible group of people. Whether from my time in college, Chicago, Columbus, Denmark or other various walks of my life. Sure, I’ve been heartbroken over romantic relationships, but I’ve been so incredibly lucky when it comes to friends.
But now 2.5 months into our time in Chicago, I find myself humbled once again.
When Chris and I decided to move here, I remember texting every single friend I had in Chicago exclaiming how excited I was to see them, and weren’t they excited to see me? Despite the years I’d been away, I was certain that we would pick up right back where we left off.
But we didn’t. Despite my assumption that my friends’ enthusiasm for my return would match mine, it didn’t (with the exception of an exceptional few – and you know who you are, boo boos. I love you so much). Attempts for happy hour have gone unanswered, invites go unsent. One friend told me the only time she could see me was a random Saturday from 1-3 p.m. and I haven’t heard from her since. Meh – no thanks.
While it would be easy to become bitter and sad, I’m almost grateful for this insanely large piece of humble pie. Despite my so-called enlightenment when it comes to friendships, I haven’t always been a great friend. I assume people will go out of their way for me, but will I go out of my way for them? For some, absolutely. For others, maybe not.
And maybe, just maybe, it’s not about me.
Maybe despite how much we grow up, we never grow out of our insecurity. Our desperate need to be loved, despite how we love in return. Maybe we’re always just one step away from giving away one half of the friendship necklace, only to take it back the next day.
We change, but only a little.