How do you respond when people who aren’t part of your immediate family need a listening ear, your support, or even your presence?
Do you pride yourself on being a reliable friend? Or is it just something you tell them to make yourself feel good and placate a fellow human in pain?
These are the questions I’ve been grappling with for a while now. Major depressive disorder stole five years of my life and made it airtight, so airtight isolation became a constant presence. Since recovering my writing voice in the summer of 2018 I’ve been trying to remember how to be a human in the world, with more or less success.
I’m only too aware of how fragile I still am so I do not let people in easily. While connecting with fellow humans remains as innate as my ability to develop a solid rapport in no time, I’m wary of both. What scares me even more is how starved I am for intellectual closeness and human warmth. So starved I’m at risk of attracting the kind of people who could put me in harm’s way again.
Some people will zero in on anyone who struggles under the pretext of offering help, swooping in as some kind of hero promising instant relief.
And once they’ve reeled you in, you become the plaything on whom they can exert control at will. They ration their attention to always leave you wanting more. Alternating between kindness and aloofness, you end up wondering what you’ve done to deserve the cold shoulder.
And if you happen to be the constant, steadfast, and loyal type like me, this is endlessly confusing and can drive you to distraction. Such a situation is dangerous to a depressive as it messes with your sense of self, especially when you’re still getting back on your feet.
As you try and reclaim what self-confidence you can from an illness that destroyed it, you might ask yourself if you’re failing at friendship.
Can you still remember how it works?
If anything feels off to you, yes, you can, and this could even be a sign that whatever human interaction you’ve entered into may not be friendship at all.
Someone who calls themselves a friend yet only interacts with you when they need an audience likely doesn’t deserve the accolade.
While we all want a witness, friendship should never be a unilateral pursuit. Then again, imbalances can and do happen, especially when one party is going through a rough patch and can’t be as present for others as they’d like.
But should you ever have the impression you’re bothering a friend, a true friend?
In budding friendships, it is normal — and advisable — to check with them what their limits are and how much darkness they can handle. But when you’ve moved past that, there’s no going back, no second-guessing yourself anymore.
If a so-called friendship isn’t mutually soothing, empowering — or both — then what is it, exactly?
Thanks to the internet, anyone seeking an audience can find one and build up an impressive collection of acquaintances. Friendship, meanwhile, goes beyond exchanging pleasantries. It digs deeper, and implies that you care for other humans and they for you, regardless of geographical coordinates.
Caring doesn’t have to mean turning up at their house with a homemade casserole although that’s a heart-warming gesture. Instead, it can be as simple as taking time out of your respective days to check in with each other and to listen. And if you’re the writerly type, it might mean blocking out a chunk of time so you can dedicate your full attention to writing them a letter or an email.
For many of us, there’s no longer any distinction between our physical and our digital selves, as the latter is nothing but an extension of the former.
But when you are the same person online and offline, as is my case, you may forget that not everyone is.
Online personas can be misleading.
For some, the internet is a way to put their ideal selves forward, the person they wish they were but aren’t yet, for reasons best known to themselves. And if you’re in a position of lack, it’s easy to get caught into this disconnect and engage with a mirage.
We humans have the unfortunate tendency to see what we want and disregard the rest, overlooking crucial details. Until those details form a big picture and you realize signs pointing to a questionable relationship with the truth were there all along.
But you chose to ignore them; a desperate need for companionship and human warmth will sometimes bypass reason.
When depression is eating you alive and you’re so lonely it translates into physical pain, you can become a junkie who would do anything for a hug.
You’d do anything so another human you care about takes you in their arms and holds you so you can feel safe and found for a moment, so you can feel human again.
This risk isn’t limited to online interactions either. Some people adopt different personas from one day to the next. Sometimes it’s because they haven’t yet figured out who they are.
Alas, it can also be a move designed to manipulate others.
Friends are easily identifiable by what they do and how they behave toward you.
All words, no action? Not a friend. All words, and not even theirs? Definitely not a friend but someone who also likely thinks you’re an idiot and won’t notice.
Save your attention for the folks who keep showing up while bearing in mind that human fallibility makes us all unreliable every now and then. When things to do exceed the time available to do them for example, you have to prioritize to keep going and this is when friendships can fall into disrepair.
Communication is key to not alienating anyone or cause them to second-guess themselves. No one likes feeling they’ve done something wrong without being able to figure out what; no one likes feeling rejected or abandoned either.
While silence can be intentional, it is seldom the case with people in extreme situations.
A chronic depressive like me will sometimes have the urge to disconnect for a while to regroup. Regardless of what a supportive, encouraging, and inspiring friend you are being to me, when looking at a screen induces nausea, I know I need to step back.
It’s not you; it’s my brain in the throes of digital overload, threatening to give in to darkness again.
Preventing misunderstandings is as easy as telling those who care about you that you’re struggling; teach them how to spot the signs if you can. And tell them you haven’t forgotten them and then get back in touch once things calm down.
Care, concern, and compassion are the foundation of friendship; they are what binds us humans together.
Like any other form of love, friendship is about commitment, not convenience.
True friendship is patient, non-judgmental, and it endures regardless of the adversity we face.
I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.