The Difficulty of Making Close Friends As You Get Older
Lane Moore on the Anxieties of Grown-Up Loneliness
I recently went to the gynecologist for my annual vagina exam. I would truly rather do anything than go to the doctor for so many reasons, not the least of which is the “oh shit, here comes a nervous breakdown in the basement of an office building” forms you have to fill out. These seemingly straightforward forms lay bare everything I carry with me about myself, all of the information that tells a story no one wants to read. And this process always starts off with two words followed by a blank space you’re supposed to know what to do with: Emergency contact: ______. Until very recently, this simple question has made me cry in the waiting room of every doctor’s office I’ve ever been in. Because it makes me feel as I have always felt, very deeply: that I belong to no one.
It’s not that I don’t have people in my life. I have my agents (hahaha, I listed them first, which is just the loneliest thing), but they aren’t obligated to give a shit about me really, beyond business, even though that model seems so cruel to me. I truly assume on some level that with anyone I regularly, truly interact with on any level, it’s personal. I don’t expect people who see me passively to, I suppose, but I would just assume that if you talk to me almost daily, you should care if I died. If you deal with suicidal ideation or depression or anxiety, that’s often part of how you define someone’s ability to be close to you, or to be a true friend.
I have some waiting-room friends, my term for people whom I’m in the process of evaluating to see if they’re trustworthy, as well as people who’ve already been through that process but have proven unsafe at various points, which means I’m still trying to determine their long-term eligibility for the role of my friend. (God, even reading that exhausts me; no wonder the idea of getting close to people makes me sleepy.) People who know me might be tempted to be, like, “This bitch talks about being alone, but there are, like, thirty people in her phone,” but here’s why my brain feels like that’s nothing. Every single one of those people falls into one of the following categories, except for my therapist, who is so great that I recently described her to someone as “my only friend,” and this was the saddest fucking thing ever. Still, I have spent most of my life not having a therapist at all, so I’m so grateful I have one now.
Anyway, back to the categories:
• I don’t know them well enough to tell them when things are really bad.
• They’ve told me to reach out when things are really bad, and then I’ve told them when things are really bad, and they didn’t write back, and it gutted me.
• They’ve told me to reach out, reply when I reach out, but don’t really seem to have the empathy, bandwidth, or know-how to respond in a way that feels comforting to me, so I don’t do it anymore.
• They’re selectively helpful, so every time I reach out, I never know if I’ll be helped or disappointed, and it feels easier to just stop trying. They’re super helpful, but I feel like there’s an unspoken time limit in terms of how much I can talk about how hard things are, so I usually keep it to about three texts and then change the subject back to them and how I can help them through their day, and they don’t challenge me when I do this, and it feels awful.
• They’ve been really, really wonderful and helpful before, but I don’t want to “bother them” again by reaching out another time.
• Work contacts.
• People who are fighting their own gigantic battles and are therefore either too triggering or send me into a spiral where I focus all the energy I should be using on myself to help them survive. With these people, I always leave the conversation feeling used and drained. To be fair, they did not ask me to turn myself inside out to help them, but my brain is so hardwired to kill myself to let someone else live, someone who is actually not dying at all, and give them the blood I need to survive when they’ve at no point suggested they needed so much as a drop, that I pour mine out into their veins, and since they absolutely did not need it, it overflows, dripping onto the floor, helping no one.
Because of this, I have always obsessively deleted people in my phone as a way to try and protect myself. “Ugh, I just texted Megan that I really needed her because things are really bad, and she didn’t reply. Lane, come on, she never replies! She says to ask if you need anything and then she doesn’t write back when you do! Delete her number so you don’t forget this again!” And then later I’ll need that number for something and I won’t have it and it’s a whole thing, but in the end, that’s something I’m willing to deal with. Because it’s far better than needing help so desperately, telling myself maybe it’ll be different this time, only to be hurt again because of course it won’t be.
I have a lot of internet friends with whom I trade voice memos and GIFs, and strangers on the internet who DM me the sweetest fucking things, but on a deep, unrelenting level, I do not have anyone I would call if I were dying. I would blank. I have blanked. There are people who say things like, “I’m here if you need me, I love you,” and I have no idea what the fuck they’re talking about, because I don’t believe it. Because the people who’ve said that to me before later turned out to be unsafe. So now when I hear it, my brain thinks, “Fuck this, I’m out,” as a knee-jerk reflex designed to keep me safe. It’s like my brain says, “Hmm, I’m not sure if there’s arsenic in this lemonade, but since there could be, there is. Don’t drink it.” So I don’t drink it. And it might’ve been wonderful lemonade. Or it could’ve killed me. But better safe than sorry.
At this point in my life, I often fear it’s too late, as if there were a sign-up deadline for intimacy and friends and family and I just kept missing it. And it’s not that I want to, but it’s so easy to get wrapped up in “But this is the normal time to have xyz thing. I do not have xyz thing yet. So it is too late for xyz thing.” Even though my rational brain thinks that’s garbage nonsense. But back to the gyno. The fluorescent lights in the waiting room put pressure on me to hurry up so I can get into the actual doctor’s office and get the fuck out of here, so I refocus and hold my pen in a way that means business. Usually I just leave the emergency contact we’ll see, fingers crossed, I’m fine, maybe they won’t notice. But they always do, damn those properly trained, thorough medical administrators.
“You didn’t fill out the emergency contact,” the woman at the front desk said while pointing her pen directly at the violation. “I don’t have one,” I said, my face turning red. “You can just put down a family member,” she said, a little more slowly this time, as though maybe there was a language barrier between us. “I don’t have any,” I replied, getting angrier, tears mixing with my rage. “Then just put down the name of a friend who would come pick you up if anything happened,” she said, inching dangerously close to pity as she saw the tears pool in my eyes.
On other occasions I have put down a friend I used to be close to years ago who lives three thousand miles away but would at least pick up the phone, or my roommate, who technically knows me. In this particular situation I was getting a full exam, STD testing and all, which is really fun if you like looking back at your sexual history for the last year—the highs and lows, the mistakes, the people you used to be able to count on but can’t anymore. While readying the HIV test, she asked me, in a tone that suggested she said this twelve hundred times a day, like customs officers who stamp a hundred passports without looking at them, “Do you have a support system should your test come back positive?” My first thought was “Oh, definitely not.” And then I panicked about how I suddenly was very, very fucking sure I had HIV. Like, more sure than anything ever. Did it matter that I’d had only one sexual encounter all year? NOT AT ALL. Jesus, those are some fucking scary questions to pose, even hypothetically.
Later, in the exam room, the totally badass, give-no-fucks gyno asked me about my sexual history, and when I told her that the one person I’d been with all year became violent, she asked if I’d reported it. My reply was “Please,” in the way that only someone who knows what happens when you do that does. She followed this with “Have you told your friends?” and I said, while barely letting her finish her question, “Yes, and they don’t care.” I took a frantic breath before thinking, Make a joke so she knows you know that’s fucked up, but feels like you’re fine. TELL HER YOU’RE FINE. So I added, “They’re really cool people.” And she said, “Right, well, what about your family?” Jesus, enough with the third degree!!! Just accept that I’m a Cool Girl in a leather jacket who comes from nowhere and is fun and so alluring and shit. Don’t look closer and don’t make me look closer either.
Instead I said, with a quickening pulse and flushed face, “I don’t have any family” for the second time that day. And she said, “Well, we’re happy to be your support system.” I scoffed like I didn’t care, but I cared. On some level I walk through the world like an adult human version of the baby bird in Are You My Mother? subconsciously waiting for someone to see that I’m very take-care-of-able, can I live with you now? I know you’re my age, but have you ever thought of adopting an adult? It’s cool and fun! And I know that sounds stupidly heartbreaking, and I’m not pretending it’s adorable and cool, but I know it’s there, below the surface.
It’s hard not to throw everything I’ve written so far out the fucking window right now because I don’t want you to know this, because I don’t want you to hate me for being so sad and not normal, but then I think, What if you know exactly what I mean? What if you, like me, would at times throw your whole life out the window and walk away, in hopes there was somewhere you could go and buy an entirely new life with new problems, new people, new everything, as if you were replacing a shitty sweater you’d worn through? Except you get only one sweater for your whole life, and anything can happen—theft, weather, cars that splash you with dirt stains that do and don’t come out—but you can’t trade it in or take it off. It’s just yours and it’s you, forever and ever and ever.
So what do you do? Well, as far as I can tell, you explain how your sweater got like this. Why it looks the way it does. And why you put patches where you did, to hold it together and make it look intentional. And you hope people will understand the parts you can’t hide anymore, even if you tried.
From How to Be Alone by Lane Moore. Used with the permission of Atria. Copyright © 2019 by Lane Moore.