I still remember the pain as if it were yesterday.
We moved to Melbourne from Sydney when I was six years old. The friendships of early years discarded due to distance. The new school was welcoming, however, and I soon found a fast friend.
Her address is still burned into my memory and I can still picture the white weatherboard house. Her Dad was jovial and light-hearted, blue eyes twinkling as he laughed with gusto. I recall many sleepovers spent giggling in the attic-like room and jumping off couches in the front room while watching home videos of ballet performances. She was a master storyteller and I would beg her to spin a tale as soon as the lights went out. Her wit was lightning-fast and her humour contagious. After school I would race upstairs, sink onto the floor beside Mum and Dad’s bed and dial her number.
It was three years of joined at the hip friendship.
When she uttered the words I thought at first she was joking.
“What do you mean you don’t want to be my best friend any more?!”
Her expression grave, she informed me with the somber air of regret that she had found someone else.
I was nine. It was my first tangible experience of rejection. I cried myself to sleep for many nights, wondering what I had done to drive her away, what I could have done differently to keep the friendship. At one point I tried pleading with her to get her to change her mind.
“I’ve thought a lot about this and I have an idea – what if… you have two best friends?” The words came out so fast, betraying my nerves.
But it wasn’t to be. She was still civil and polite when our paths crossed, but she made it clear that I had been replaced.
We were in high school.
I had just shed braces and glasses, emerging from my cocoon of social isolation to feel the warm rays of attention.
Her skin was a perfect shade of bronze and white teeth naturally straight. She had the practised air of expected affection, the confidence of one knowing her effect on the older guys.
I wanted that.
Stepping further away from my childhood friendships, I drew closer. Learning the toss of the hair, the look of slight puzzlement, the easy laugh. Soccer became our performance field – we fashioned ourselves into athletic shapes, a means of gaining affection and status. Hair mirrored into short bobs. Soon there was little to distinguish ourselves from the other.
Conversations revolved around which boy we were pursuing and what they had just said to us. Other friends grew irritated with our single mindedness.
We simply delved deeper.
Rivalry bloomed. Her boyfriend became mine. Words were veiled, barbed and guarded.
“You are starting to get tuck-shop lady arms.”
It didn’t hurt as much this time. Words bounced off hard surfaces already constructed.
I found out one day that she had been reckless, pushing me to jump into a relationship in which there was no longer any reciprocation of desire.
We drifted apart.
“I’ve been waiting so long for you to come!!”
The tinge of desperation in the voice unnerved me, but this was what I signed up for, right? A Young Adults Pastor’s Wife had obligations, and was to be ever-accommodating and hospitable.
The creak of the garden gate began to make my heart race with anxiety. Our adjoining property to the Church became a drop in centre.
“You can drive her home, right?”
Expectations of perpetual helpfulness became the norm and I struggled to rise to the challenge.
Twenty years old. Just married. Slowly drowning.
When we left two years later we were both spent. We moved on campus so that Dave could study and we barely left our room, often ducking into the mess hall to fill our plates with food and sneaking back to eat alone.
I decided that I never wanted to be needed like that again. The bricks in the wall rose higher.
“What do you think about the idea of moving into a shared house with Alex and Monica?”
Dave’s suggestion made me pause mid-movement.
“Hmm…” I responded dubiously. “That sounds difficult… I’m not sure I would be able to do that.”
Eventually discussions turned obstacles into possibilities and I began warming to the notion.
“Okay…but there would have to be separate kitchens. I need my own space.”
The place we moved into was a sprawling, run-down dwelling. Carpet worn and revealing stories of much life lived in the space, a ramshackle extension tacked onto the front of the house. Creaks echoing in the floorboards and the wind whistling as it passed through unseen cracks.
There was only one kitchen.
We were cautiously hopeful, very considerate and polite. Beginning with house warming parties, games nights and happiness.
Life swept on, bringing with it more pregnancies and births.
Pressure mounted. In the emotionally heightened surroundings of a perpetually screaming baby, little things began to grate.
Ziplock bags drying on the dish rack. Toddlers fighting the a different version of the same fight over and over. Parents predictably taking their own child’s side. Clashing thresholds of mess and noise.
We saw each other at our best and worst.
My strategy of being agreeable and aloof failed. Cracks began to show and irritation seeped through.
Tears at the dinner table. Words best left unspoken. Accusations. Disappointment. Hurt.
I began to realise that my approach to friendship was unhealthy. Presenting only the parts of myself that I thought they wanted to only led to angst in both parties.
The walls that had kept me safe were now a means of entrapment.
It is inevitable that the complex interaction of humans leads to relational breakdown at times.
These experiences shape us, conditioning us to think of ourselves in certain terms. To hide ourselves behind façades fashioned around what we learn that others want from us. Distancing ourselves earlier from relationships that require too much.
The Hulith House Sharing Experiment became a watershed moment for me. The pressure of having to deal with issues without distancing myself from the friendship became a catalyst to weaken the walls that I had constructed around my heart. The experience set me upon a journey of discovering what kind of friendships could be built if you did let people in.
Alex and Monica are like family now. They are pretty much the first to receive notice of good or bad news, hear up to date information about the onset of contractions, receive unedited messages about tough days and whisk kids away for relief time when things get too much.
These kinds of friendships don’t happen by accident.
They are built upon shared experience, vulnerability and authenticity. Layers constructed when arguments don’t destroy the link, when news is as sad for one as it is for the other, when you know the layout of their fridge and pantry almost as well as your own. It’s found in constantly asking for forgiveness, cheering successes and avoiding the strangling cord of bitterness.
I still have a lot to learn. I’m learning to disregard the first response of ‘who do they need me to be?’ and ask ‘who am I?’ instead. Learning to tactfully say when I disagree instead of smiling politely and ranting to Dave later. To accept help, putting myself in a place of vulnerability without feeling that I have to right the balance and repay the transaction.
There are so many more friendships that have defined me in a positive way – the continued catch-ups with my work friends despite having put my career on pause 3.5 years ago, the lifelong friendship of Holly, wine nights with Allie, the accountability of Naomi who cuts through the crap and asks the right questions every single time. I value the friendship of so many in the Open House community and the healing nature of the Tuesday or Thursday night gatherings over coffee and wine. The sporadic but ‘like we never stopped’ communication with Shan, Wednesday night dinners with Nick and Laura and the newer connections with other bloggers over the internet. I’m also loving getting to know the other mums at Kinder and already feel as if I’m part of a thriving and loving community there. (I’m petrified that I’ve left out a crucial one and the thought of this may well keep me up tonight!)
It is a shame that most of our defining moments occur in early years – when everyone is just struggling to discover the rules of the game, protecting themselves from pain and beginning to construct an identity. Yet if we don’t examine the messages that we have internalised from these experiences, they will continue to haunt us in our adult life as we are tempted to run, hide and cut off ties with all those who disappoint us.
Friendship can be an incredible gift. People to do life with, to encourage and support you. People to cry with and bake casseroles for when things go wrong. Someone to look you in the eye and tell you hard things you might not want to hear. Friendships add colour, depth and glow to an otherwise monochrome existence.
May you find your people and never let them go.
This piece is part of an exploration of monthly themes as a part of my resolutions for this year.
January: The Art of Hospitality
February: A Quest for Spirituality
March: The Audacity of Authenticity
April: The Genius of Generosity