Image Credit: Michael Phelan

How I lost the friend I’d never had…

In 2010, at the start of a new year, I made a particular resolution, involving that most rare and difficult thing: a truly honest conversation between two British adults. It meant getting someone to admit what I had known for some years — that she was only still in contact out of politeness — and agreeing, unless there was ever a good professional reason for us to connect again, we would call this a last goodbye.

I first met her in 2001, when I was 17, and she was 29. Upon learning I was a budding journalist writing my first pieces for the web, she suggested I interview her for a profile about her work. The interview went smoothly enough and included more than a pinch of gratuitous off-the-record gossip. Naively, but understandably given my age, I took her ill-judged candid moments to mean we were top buddies. She presumably believed that if she stayed in touch politely but half-heartedly I’d eventually get bored and move on, or maybe be useful to her career someday, but probably no more than a bit. Meanwhile, I thought that if I hung around patiently for long enough and made it big as a journalist, I’d eventually be worthy of a greater part in her life.

Years later, I thought back over the number of times she’d actually ever made contact with me and realised I could count them on less than one hand. Two of them were when she had work to promote; one was a good luck message for my degree Finals. Three. Three, in almost nine years. The rest of the time, I was the instigator; sitting by my inbox like an unrequited lover, tensing up every Christmas as I waited to hear whether we would meet up in the New Year (No. No we would not). It affected my studies, and my relationship with others, especially my family, reaching an all-time low when I broke down and almost gave up a place at university in the hope I could become her personal assistant, or get a job through one of her friends instead.

It’s fairly easy to let go of someone who isn’t giving you something you know you want: a relationship, a shoulder to cry on, a good laugh, a good job. If I’d specifically wanted or asked for any of these things from her, she could have told me they weren’t going to happen. The problem was, most of the time I didn’t really know what I wanted. I wanted nothing and anything. I took everything she said at face value, not fully understanding that she was wearing a public face and her life might not be as perfect as she was presenting. Rather than wanting something in particular, I took whatever I could get, doing whatever I could to please and hoping I could make myself indispensable somehow. Sometimes, the easiest people to please are those who demand nothing of you.

After our contact ended, I decided to try and look for everything positive I could from it. Ever the writer, I went back through our old conversations to generate ideas and leads for articles and fiction. I’d love to say this had a happy ending. Sadly, it’s not quite as simple. It has definitely inspired me, and I’ve met some wonderful people; people who have added a lot more to my life than she could ever have done, and vice versa. However, I’ve yet to find anyone or anything that has moved me forward quite as much as I’d like. Indeed, I’ve encountered more loss over the last four years: two friends I met through writing have taken their own lives.

There are also new potential dilemmas with the ubiquity of social media, which at its worst is essentially a tool for propping up pseudo-friendships. I met the subject of this piece long before Facebook or Twitter existed, and she doesn’t use either, so this has never been an issue where she’s concerned. Now, once you follow or add someone as a friend, it’s near-impossible to delete them without appearing rude. Someone in my family has a rule that at the start of each new year, she goes through her Facebook friends list and removes anyone she hasn’t heard from for a certain time. While this might seem a little harsh — and before you say it, she has two young children; it’s not a snub to busy new parents — auditing your friendships now and then is not such a bad idea. If someone lives or works less than an couple of hours away but you don’t see them in person for years on end, it’s worth asking yourself, and them, why.

My early journalism did have one major benefit. It forced me to confront a personal truth I’d been throwing myself into writing partly in order to try and deny. As this person tried to bond with me with stories of her idyllic middle-class English life, assuming mine was similar, I realised something wasn’t quite right. As I listened to her glib references to dinner parties and skiing holidays, all I could do was remember the blazing family row at the age of 11 after I accidentally skied at full pelt into a line of people and dropped a cone of overpriced fries into the snow. When she told me about how much she’d loved algebra as well as English at school, I squirmed as I admitted I had the arithmetic scores of a nine-year-old. And when she told me all about her well-off, successful friends who’d been to my university, all I felt was that their world seemed impossibly far away from anything I could achieve. At 21, in my second year of undergrad, I was diagnosed with dyspraxia, a condition characterised by a marked different in verbal versus performance IQ, causing problems with coordination, short-term memory and spatial awareness. While it was a relief, I can’t help but look back now and feel proper support and understanding when I was younger would have been infinitely more helpful than time spent trying to suck up to the wrong person.

“Character is how you treat those who can do nothing for you,” that worthy saying often wheeled out in online memes about helping the poor and needy, has a flip side. The other facet to that character is that you can hoard people in your life who add nothing to it, weighing you down and stopping you focusing on fixing your own mess. A recent Quartz piece on important life lessons to master in your 30s lists “Don’t spend time with people don’t treat you well.” Not treating you well isn’t confined to abuse or bullying. It also means people who only spend time with you because they can’t bring themselves to tell you to go away…

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