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Prickly friendships and cactus friends

February 26, 2020 Karianne 7 min read No Comments

“Self love is a good thing but self awareness is more important. You need to once in a while go, ‘Uh I’m kind of an a-hole.'”

Louis C.K.

It’s been on my mind for a while: I treat Jesus like a friend, but I don’t treat my friends that great. I barely talk to them and we hardly spend time together, but I brushed the thought away. Then the day before Valentine’s I got an email from a now ex-friend that confirmed my suspicions: I’m a bad friend.

I’d like to think I became a bad friend some time after graduating high school. My little group parted ways and added their own party members. Our lives quickly cluttered with school, work, boyfriends, and new hobbies. Some moved out of town or out of state. After a few years, communication dwindled from “We should get together” texts to a long-lost trinket reminding me of someone I haven’t thought about in months. But in all honesty, I was a bad friend before that.

From middle school and on, my friends had to understand that I would be at my dad’s every other weekend and for most of the summer—which meant a lot of time apart during the most critical times for friendship building. Plus, I’ve never been good at texting back.

Communication: sparingly.

Time together: hardly.

All of that combined = bad friend/ship.

For years I was blind to the steady decay of my friendships. On my end, the relationships didn’t dwindle, they paused. If I was away from someone for awhile and then got back with them it was like drawing a line on a sheet of paper. When the relationship un-paused I placed the marker where it last was and kept drawing forward.

However I’ve learned it doesn’t work that way for a lot of people.

Instead, when the marker stops the friendship stops. And if it starts again it doesn’t pick up from where it was but the marker has to start at a new, awkward beginning, unsure of when it can touch the old line and which places to leave alone now.

I’ve had the same close friends for most of my life. 2 have been with me since elementary, 2 since middle school, and 1 I found during my college-gap years. I love and admire each of my friends, yet the day before Valentine’s day I lost one of them.

Not to death or anything like that, but because friendships need attention just like anything else. If friendships are like houseplants then I’m the owner who leaves for 3 weeks and hopes they’re still alive when I get back.

Most people in my life have learned to become a cactus—enjoy the water when it comes and don’t worry if it’s not around. Yet every once in awhile I’ll text a lot and be super social then I’ll suddenly not. That shift, going from dry desert to partially underwater, can shake even the most well-rooted.

When my newest friend asked Chloe (my oldest friend) if she did something or made me angry because I wasn’t around as much, Chloe said “Nah, that’s just how Karianne is sometimes. She disappears for awhile but comes back and it’s all good.”

I don’t like that my friends are used to that. And even though they say they are okay with it, I lost one because she was tired of me not being as much in her corner as she was in mine.

I’m used to friendships that end because people talk less and hang out none, but the bridge is still open if one of us decides to cross it again. This time the bridge burned. My friend stood on one side of the gorge, I was stuck on the other. The ropes frayed and twisted in the flames. Ash swirled in the air as charred, wood planks fell into the abyss below. And it hurt.

In my eyes, the bridge had been fine and she held the torch that started the fire. But based on what she told me, in her eyes she fought to put the fire out while I let it burn, and she was done trying. There was nothing I could do but watch this bridge go down. I wondered, are other bridges in my life burning and I don’t even know it?

That day I reached out to my old friends, some I hadn’t talked to in months. Instead of sending the usual “we need to get together sometime,” I said “Hey, I know you’re busy so let’s just get some food. How’s Wednesday?” And you know what? It worked. From 6 to 9 pm that Wednesday we played catch up with each others lives. Then one of them sent this photo.

I was confident that these bridges were okay, but definitely needed some maintenance. Someone else probably would’ve recognized this years ago, but I have a habit of marking things as good unless someone specifically tells me they aren’t.

Jake thinks I have a form of high-functioning autism since I don’t pick up on social cues. However, I think, because of how I was raised, I see the cues but don’t give them any weight. Crossed arms and talking less could mean someone’s upset with me, but they might just be tired or stressed. They’ll have to clearly express I’m the culprit if they want me to be aware of it, and I’ll do the same for them.

“You should have known” is a mind-game that I will fail 100%.

Through this experience I was able to see that I’m a bad friend because I struggle to stay in contact, I miss social cues, and I don’t know how to always be there for someone.

I don’t know what it’s like to have someone always be there, or to always be there for someone.

Maybe it’s because I’m an only child with divorced parents, but at any moment of my life I never have the same people around, and now that I’m old, I don’t expect anyone to always be there for me.

Please hear this, I’m not saying I don’t need anyone—I definitely need my friends, faith, and family—but I don’t expect anyone to always be there when I need them. That would be unfair.

Everyone will disagree or forget about something important to me eventually, and if I held that against them I wouldn’t have any friends left. When I started to date Jake most of my friends thought it was too soon. But they hung in there like stubborn cactuses (cacti?), and after the marker bumped around a little our friendships moved forward again.

It took a great deal of self awareness to peer into the mirror and accept that hey, I’m kind of an a-hole to my friends, and I’ve always been. But I don’t want to continue to be. However, I also know I can’t be as social as Jake, who stays constantly connected to over 30 friends through Discord, Slack, and multiple group chats. And, at this point, I’m not sure the cactuses would appreciate that either.

There has to be a middle-ground utopia.

So I turned to Dr. Google. I researched what to do when someone doesn’t want to be your friend anymore because I was not equipped to handle it and thought SURELY there’s a better method than me bawling like a baby. Turns out step one is literally “cry and listen to sad music.”

I also looked into how to be a good friend. One might think,“That should be obvious…” But I’m the best at missing the obvious.

I found this article, which was NOT helpful. The author defined being a good friend as “feeling” when someone isn’t okay, “knowing” the appropriate mood, and “making” the other person feel things…Believing that I can make someone feel happy or sad or wanted is like riding a landslide into codependency. I can do things to show that I care, but we each interpret the action into a feeling based on what’s going on inside us already… /endrant

Although that article had a few good things to keep in mind, overall it made me question whether my quest to be a better friend was impossible as a social-cue-castrate. Still, I kept searching and found another article that provided 9 concrete steps anyone can follow to be more mindful about being a great friend. Because I can’t remember all 9, I’ve summarized them into 3-bite sized pieces.

1. Be real. Pretending to enjoy something or not being honest because I’m afraid they’ll be upset puts the relationship on eggshells, and the friendship will fail.

2. Give time. This one only gets tougher as we pursue our dream jobs and romantic relationships. But I need to set a goal to get together with my friends who live in town monthly for a quick outing, and also celebrate special events together. I will also work on replying to texts in a “timely manor,” because Jake has helped me realize why it’s important to keep the other person updated—even if the answer is “I still don’t know.”

3. Work it out. Conflict will come up. Heck, part of #1 (being honest) is sure to cause some wounds. Being a good friend means not giving up, but actively working through the difficult times. It means having patience, grace, and loyalty. Something will come up that we may never agree on, but if we both still want a friendship, we can forgive.

Changing from the bad friend to a good one won’t be quick, and of course I wish I had started sooner. Yet I’m so grateful for everyone in my life.

Who knows what will happen in the future, but for now I see that I have a house of cactuses I’d like to help bloom.

Meet the author
Founder - Art Director - Animator | Website

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Karianne is the founder of Windmill Ways. She plays the cello professionally and currently works as an Art Director for a charity. Because she loves animated shows and movies, she studies 3D animation and graduated with a BFA with the unfortunate class of 2020. Her dream vacation would be just staying home, but "home" being a glamorous cabin somewhere in the mountains surrounded by forest.

Favorite band: Lord Huron
Favorite book: This Present Darkness
Favorite quote: "Get all the advice and instruction you can, so you will be wise the rest of your life. You can make many plans, but the Lord’s purpose will prevail." Proverbs 19:20-21 (NLT)

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