Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Friendship is hard work

When I was a child, it just didn't occur to me that friendship was a thing.  On my first day of riding a bus to school, Mum asked me when she picked up up at the bus stop whether I'd made any friends on the bus.  Friends?! The concept of making friends with the other kids on the bus - or even talking to them - just hadn't occurred to me.  I was 13.

By then I'd learned that the best I could hope for was to be ignored, and at worst was some variation on the bullying theme.  The idea that these people might actually like me just wasn't one that was on my list of possible outcomes.

You see, it hadn't really happened before.

There's a stage, somewhere between the early childhood stage of not being really aware of anyone but oneself and the point where one starts to properly identify individuals and choose some over others, where children will play with pretty much any other children.  I very vaguely recall this phase, and participating in something that involved running around chasing or tackling or the like, but by the time my cohort had grown up a little and was starting to bud off into cliques, they'd decided they'd have no truck with me.

Looking back, I can't say I entirely blame them.

It was never that I actively didn't want friends.  Up until maybe ten or so I didn't really get the concept.  I think I considered anyone who happened to be in the same grade as me to be a "friend", regardless of whether they liked me, didn't know me, or actively hated my guts.  It was about proximity, rather than interaction.

Then, and I think it probably owes more to Alvin and the Chipmunks than I'd like to admit, it dawned on me that friends were people you enjoyed being around, people who enjoyed being around you, people you did fun stuff with.  And once I understood that was A Thing, I wanted in.

But I didn't have the skills to make it happen.  By now I was about 11, and there are few crowds tougher to crack than tween girls at a Catholic school, especially if you've missed a lot of the groundwork.  There was a lot of subtle, complicated social stuff going on to which I was completely oblivious, and would be until years later.  No doubt a lot of it eludes me, and some of it always will.

Something I did for a long time was assume a friendship was closer than it actually was.  For instance, when I was about 12 I Blytonesquely described someone in my diary as a "firm friend".  ( I was still in my echolalic phase, when my language was largely based on phrases and ideas from books and TV rather than actual autonomous self expression.  Getting from there to actually having words of my own was somewhat complicated, and worth a post of its own sometime.)  She wasn't.  She was just someone whose name I knew, who was in the same grade, and didn't hate me.

Today I do have some wonderful friends, and it's been largely a matter of time, luck and work.  Time because it took me a lot longer to "grow up" than a typical woman my age.  It's only the last seven years or so I've really been in a place to be able to make meaningful adult friendships.  Also time has mellowed the others around me - making friends with people in their 30s is a lot easier than making friends with teenagers!  Luck brought me into an industry full of eccentrics, creatives, and outliers of various sorts, and most of my IRL friendships so far are with people I've met through work.  And work, because sorting my head out and getting a handle on how people work was work.  Or rather, is, because it's ongoing for me and always will be.

But it's so very, very worth the effort.

Image: Hitchhiker with his dog Tripper, from the US National Archives on Flickr Commons