Yes. Ross needed better friends.
I would know. My “Friends” nearly killed me.
My teen social life was defined by video games and broken homes.
- Are your parents divorced?
- Are you obsessed with video games and dark humor?
You were in the club!
We did not intentionally define these dynamics. This grouping occurred organically.
I was an oddball though. Because, out of this group, I was the only one involved in academic and athletic extracurriculars.
I wanted to go to college. I was determined to earn my spot by some special skill — or an impressive application in aggregate.
The rest of my “Friends” thought this folly.
“College is for rich arrogant assholes”. This is the message I was told, in one thousand different ways.
This message conflicted with the drives and inclinations of my other friends.
That’s right, I had friends from my sports teams, friends from student government, friends from speech and debate.
But… They were not my “Bros”. They were not my “Family.
I was programmed by religion to cherish loyalty and my gamer friends reinforced the concept.
My life and circumstances perpetuated this bond.
Beaten bloody and full of tears, I sure wasn’t going to the west (rich) side of town to find refuge in the McMansion of one of my teammates. When things at home got too hard to handle, I was given a shelter in someone else’s broken home.
I was intimidated by those McMansions… The places where people seemed to “have it together”.
So, similar to Ross, I found that the longer I associated with hooligans, the more I was endeared to them. The more I was intimidated by the people who resembled what I aspired to be.
It was ok.
I was going to escape.
I enlisted in the Navy with the hope that they would “Accelerate My Life” and give me all the money I needed to attend college debt free (having seen many of my friends’ subprime homes foreclosed upon I was more than a little terrified at the prospect of student loans).
I could enjoy the nonsense of this immature “family”, but eventually, I would be catapulted into “adulthood”.
The Navy learned about my asthma… The condition my nincompoop recruiter had told me to withhold from the examiners…
They sent me back home, shaved naked, malnourished, and flat broke.
I had given all the money and objects I had received upon graduation away to my “Friends”, believing myself home free. Set to work, learn, and earn for the next six years.
I came back and found myself radically dependent upon the very people I had hoped to abandon.
Returning to my pizza delivery job, I received their shelter for months before I was able to move into a place with my high school sweetheart.
She was enrolled in college full time.
And she hated my “Friends”.
She criticised all their failings in a fashion similar to the way Hopkins’ article has criticised the failings of Ross’s “Friends”… and then some.
But. I stood up for them. I fought for them. Calling them my family. How dare she not appreciate my loyalty and my drive to maintain solidarity with them.
What did we have in common?
Less and less every day. All of my motivated friends had gone away. They were in different states or different countries. I was left with the unambitious dregs whom I shared only history with.
I didn’t even play video games anymore!
I had gotten rid of my console so that I could concentrate and get better marks my senior year.
So, driven by loyalty and familiarity, I allowed these fools to drive a wedge between myself and my sweetheart who was desperate to help us escape our hometown.
Comfort or Actualization?
I chose comfort.
I think Ross might relate.
My sweetheart left me and went off to a better university.
My friends consoled me, telling me what a “stuck-up, know-it-all” she was all along. I didn’t agree with them. But, I liked that they seemed to care.
So the drinking began.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with the lives of young eighteen-year-olds who opted out of college… but, if you’re familiar with the escapades of college freshman, imagine that multiplied by the absence of lectures and exams.
I found myself drowning my brain.
I tried going out sober a handful of evenings and the results were exactly as David Hopkins describes in his critique of Friends.
“Boring!” “Who cares!?”
I would be cut off midsentence when I attempted to convey a thought that didn’t have to do with sex, money, or booze.
I eventually conceded.
If I couldn’t defeat them. I’d join them.
To do this, I required far more alcohol than the normal binge drinker. Only a black-out produced “satisfaction”.
Returning from their universities and humanitarian endeavors, my motivated friends would quickly assess my situation. My desperation.
They would suggest I sober up. They offered help.
“For what!? Who was going to accept me now?!”
I told them that I was far beyond any attempts at anything resembling “redemption”.
My attempts at community college, divided between the fools, resulted in abject failure. When I showed up, the work was excellent. The teachers were baffled that I was a part-time schlub hobbling along half-heartedly. But, eventually showing up was just too challenging.
Eventually, I even begged.
I begged many of these “Friends”. I confessed to them my terror at my own alcohol abuse. I begged them to help me with my addiction. “Please, stop inviting me out. Maybe we could do something else other than go to bars?”
“Remember the fun we used to have before we started drinking? Remember the adventures we used to have before we got our drivers licences?”
Yes. They remembered. They were nostalgic too. And they sympathized. They told me one by one: “I got you. Totally man.” They agreed to stop inviting me out.
That would last a couple days. Never more than a couple weeks.
“Common, man! You a pussy? You’re not an alcoholic man! You’re just a lightweight! Who’s gonna be my wingman? Do you really think it’s healthy just to lock yourself up at home like this?”
“Just one drink…”
I had never felt peer pressure to use any substances in high school. I thought that was what teens did to each other. I had never experienced it. That’s how it completely blindsided me by the time I became 21.
I didn’t begin to write this intending to convey the sad-sop-stories common in the corridors of an A.A. meeting.
This is about the “harsh embrace of anti-intellectualism in America”.
I knew that anti-intellectualism had won when I was told directly to my face, by one of these “friends”:
“How are we supposed to have fun if you don’t come out with us tonight? Who else is going to get as hammered as you and make a complete ass of themselves?!”
This came from the individual who also said on multiple occasions:
“Reading! Who do you think I am?! I haven’t read since they stopped giving us picture books! and you know what, Those picture books were kind of a pain in my ass now that I think about it!”
My “friend”, who I had helped through school… Who I had given thousands of dollars to when he needed help…
He had reduced me to his own personal drunken monkey.
I don’t know if he had intentionally set out to debase me… to take “The smart guy” and turn him into the “drooling vomiting buffoon”.
But, he had done it.
My “Friend” who I had argued to defend from criticism from my most intelligent Friends… He admitted to me that he enjoyed my pitiful state.
Greek Tragedy Indeed.
It should be of no surprise that months later, after a horrible drunken wreck. I got word of his dismissal. That entire cohort had similarly diminutive and unsympathetic sentiment about my impending day in court.
“He was always crazy”.
“I knew he was a drunk ever since that time he puked in a jack-o-lantern sophomore year”.
“You could never trust the guy, remember the time he stuck me with that bar tab?”
This, and much more. These were the types of ridicule that my loyalty, my nostalgia, had gained me.
This became most clear when I began receiving letters in prison.
I didn’t get any letters from my drinking buddies.
All my letters came from the dozens of people that I had pushed away. The smart, motivated people who I felt had abandoned me. The people I knew could see the pain and the shame in my eyes. So I stopped letting them look at me. The people I had hid from.
They all wrote me. From their college, from their doctor’s offices, from their research laboratories, from their field tents…
Somehow they had found out about my situation and they took time out of their days to reach out to me. Me, this person I wanted them to hate. I wanted them to validate my disappointment in myself. But, they wouldn’t.
Instead, they told me that I was the smartest person they knew, they felt like they didn’t deserve their status when, just as easily, someone like me could wind up in jail.
Let’s say their flattering words were supportive hyperbole.
But, It told me all that I needed to know about the difference between “Friends” and FRIENDS.
I let that lonely, self-pitying, sad-sack die in prison. His sadness and self-doubt died along with the friendships that got him there.
I have spent the six years since then (my initial incarceration) trying to manifest half the person that my real friends described to me in their letters.
I spent the first four years of my adult life trying to bring myself down so that my “Friends” might feel better.
I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to be the kind of person my Real Friends can be proud of.
Here’s to real friends who appreciate success and intelligence.
If you’d like more Novel Memories, read Sonder, a collection of stories from the time before this downward spiral.