Friendship: Write about being friends with someone.
This is a fiction. I should warn you before it begins that it runs to 2700 words. I haven't read them back or edited them. I'm hoping that some days I will only write a little. 2700 words a day, every day, would take too much time and I have too many other things I want to be doing to manage such commitment to this writing challenge. I'm enjoying it immensely though and have surprised myself on many of the first ten days.
|Picture taken at Queen Elizabeth Park, Ashington, 24th November 2016|
I never believed it would be like this. What did I do to deserve it? It's all new to me and my one regret is that it didn't happen sooner. I've never been able to be social. Whenever I meet someone I'll freeze in their company and be unable to talk. I just can't do it. I don't know what to say and I'm so flustered and churned up inside at the pressure of saying the right thing that I end up saying nothing at all. Or I say something stupid. That's worse. It got so bad that I stopped going out at all in case someone tried to talk to me or if a shop assistant asked me a question not directly pertaining to the items in my basket. Outside is where the people are. Outside is where I have no control over what goes on. Outside is a mystery, a conundrum with no answer. At least, I can't solve it. Other people seem to have no difficulty and I look at the way they chat and smile and laugh together and I'm filled with jealousy at them and rage at myself for being so terribly useless.
So I stopped going out. Unless I really, really had to. And I stopped communicating with people face to face. Except in emergencies. If I needed a plumber I'd have to talk to someone wouldn't I? And I'd be praying for a plumber who just wanted to get on and fix the loo rather than stopping to talk about families, or the weather, or football, or something else I can't manage. You don't have to go out you know. Not these days. With home delivery it's easy. You still have to talk to the delivery person sometimes of course but that's okay really. There's a script and it almost never deviates. Between hello and thank you there's really only need to talk about the delivery and perhaps whether or not it's raining or too hot or saying it's okay they've turned up late again.
I thought I liked my life. A dishonest sentence if ever there was one. I hated my life, hated myself for hiding, hated the way social interaction was beyond the realms of possibility. I used to look at myself in the mirror and cry because the person looking back at me was frightened and lonely. For a long time I lost hope.
And then it happened. I still struggle with everything social of course but I'm making progress and she's very proud of me and I'm very proud of her too. We struggle together but we're determined. We've even been able to meet and that feels much safer because we can protect each other. It's like we're in a glistening bubble or a warm cocoon. Even when people are talking to us. Or at us. Somehow with the two of us there we can muddle through a conversation.
I have a friend now and in friendship it feels like there is nothing impossible and that one day there may be more friends, more happiness and who knows, I might eventually be able to leave the house without needing to take extra medication for my anxiety.
I didn't meet her face to face of course. Not straight away. There's no way that would have happened. She was nearly stuck inside as much as I was. She wasn't quite so far gone though and could still get out to buy a bottle of milk or a bar of chocolate from the corner shop. But she wouldn't have dreamed of crossing town to visit someone, let alone meeting them somewhere as threatening as a cafe. She wouldn't even have managed to meet in a park and I certainly wouldn't. I am so happy now that I am able to visit parks and see the beauty and majesty of the trees. Life is much better now I can lie on the grass and gaze up at the clouds, listening to the birds over the constant background hum of traffic. Life is beyond a dream when I lie on the grass with Erica.
As it turned out Erica was part of a support group I joined for people like us. The shut-ins. The social failures. The people who couldn't do people close up. I'd seen the group advertised and I signed up to the email list to see what it was, whether there would be anything there that might possibly help me get out of the house just for a while. My biggest dream when I joined was that they might be able to give me such assistance that one day I'd be able to see the sea again. I dreamed of the sea frequently and remembered the restfulness I found sitting by the water, whether on a sandy beach or rocky outcrop, just listening and seeing and tasting the air and letting myself be a part of the ebb and flow of the waves. At that time I didn't know that I'd ever have the chance to feel the sand and the salt water between my fingers or to witness the creatures of rock pools.
Learning of the support group was as if a rainbow lit up the sky. A promise of hope and a promise of gold. I couldn't quite believe it was real and knew that the pot of gold at the end of the support group might be just as out of reach and illusory as the one at the end of the rainbow. Nevertheless, I signed up because I felt I had to do something or die alone, an old man who gradually lost the ability to look after himself. I saw myself in twenty, thirty years finding myself unable to get up out of bed one morning, unable to call for help, and dying of thirst as I lay in despair and in my own urine and shit. The existence of support meant there was just a chance of avoiding that doomed future.
I lurked for a long time. And I read. There was a lot to read. All these people sharing their similar experiences, their hopes, their failures, the unfairness of it all. A lot of it was quite useless to me. People who had given up. People who were just there to complain that they were going to be the ones dying in their own excrement. People who would be encouraged and reassured over and over again by their peers but wouldn't begin to be able to listen. Sometimes what I read made me very sad and several times I had to stop reading and walk away in tears because I wasn't finding a way out of my solitary confinement.
I kept returning though because it wasn't all bad. Among the people there was a group who had made major progress in overcoming their problems, good people who stayed to be encouragers, mentors, and to show that anything is possible. Many of them still struggled every day and still had days on which they weren't able to leave the house or meet with people. Their stories and words were an inspiration to me because, though I wasn't able yet to change myself, I started to believe that one day my life could be better, would be better. I would see the sea. And see it again and again, over and over and I would enjoy my life. Others in the the group were struggling to find ways forward and the difficulties they faced overcoming all their psychological blocks were staggering. The way they continued to fight, refusing to give up, was as inspiring as the lives of the mentors.
And then there was Erica. When I read the group emails written by Erica I felt something more. I felt a connection. She could have been me writing. She wrote with such clarity and such wisdom about her plight. At that time she was, as I say, unable to get further than the shop and even that was pushing it and she would be exhausted by the strain. But she understood and she wrote with grace and vigour about how she was going to find ways to gradually overcome everything she suffered. In her suffering she found time too to encourage others and to offer them virtual hugs. I admired Erica and found myself looking forward to her next post in the group. Reading her words made me smile.
I continued to lurk for several months. Actually posting in the group was a big thing for me. I was dreadfully afraid of screwing it all up even before I began, that I'd say something repulsive, repugnant, something deemed an unforgivable criminal offense and that I'd be rejected even from that safe space. My first posts, when they finally happened were simple ones. The group had a daily challenge to find positive things about ourselves and our lives. I decided to try it but when I sat down to type the positives my mind went blank and I couldn't think of anything positive at all about my own life. I wouldn't give up though and after half an hour I managed to type two positive things. The existence of the group. And the existence of computers, without which there would be no group. That was my first post. Nobody hated me for it. Some people even said hello because they noticed I was new.
After that I started to post more, to complain about my life, to talk of how I wished life could be. I'd offer what positivity I could to others in the group and much to my amazement a few email relationships began to develop. The first time I received an email from someone "off list" I was completely blown away. Someone was wanting to communicate. With me. I was being social.
One of Erica's posts moved me deeply and I decided I wanted to write to her. Just one email. One message of support and understanding and to tell her how much her words resonated with me. And how much I enjoyed reading her words. I didn't expect that she would ever reply to me. I just wanted to tell her that, though she was suffering, she was helping someone. I got a big shock. Two days later Erica replied to me. A long email. A happy email. The tone was friendly and she even told some jokes and she asked some questions too and talked of books and hobbies and art and games. Receiving that first off list mail from Erica was the most joyful thing that had happened to me in a long while.
So I replied. Not after two days. After one day. I'd have replied after one hour but I didn't want to be seen as too needy or pushy or that I didn't have much of a life. I answered her questions, asked a few of my own and talked more about the sea and books and dreams and thanked her for her email and for not telling me that I was awful to send one to her.
And she replied. And I replied. And over the course of six months the emails became a daily occurrence and sometimes more than daily and sometimes we had several threads of emails running back and forth. Then one day everything changed for us. One of the rules the group had was anonymity. There were things you were allowed to talk about. Most things were fine. But you weren't allowed to talk about your location and you certainly weren't meant to use your real name.
The day everything changed was the day we broke the rules. After six months and hundreds of long emails we decided that we could probably trust one another without doubting that the other might be some kind of psychopath or sociopath intent on destroying a life. We broke the rules. Until that day Erica - who for some reason I'd only ever known as Morrigan's Milkmaid which is a name I still don't understand - could have been living anywhere in the world. Well not anywhere. That's a lie. I knew she was British, there had been plenty of clues and obvious giveaways about that when we talked about food and the weather and social systems. I was hardly likely to have argued about Marmite and Pontefract cakes with a Korean.
On that day we learned something that came as a big surprise to both of us. We lived in the same town. Her home is only two miles away for mine. What was the probability of that? I could tell you if I looked it up. Erica calculated the odds. A simple business of working out the population living that close to her home and then dividing by the population of the United Kingdom. We felt that we had beaten the odds and over the next week we started to ask each other whether we might find a way one day to actually meet. To go out. Beyond the corner shop. And deliberately meet someone.
We planned it all carefully. How to meet with minimal interaction with anyone else. Where to meet so that we wouldn't have to cope with a third person unless we were unlucky. How it would be okay to pull out at the last moment and postpone the meeting. Neither of us were confident enough to entertain the other at home in case it all went very wrong so we decided the best thing would be for each of us to travel by taxi to a local park and meet up on one of a row of benches we had found with Google maps. If it got too much we gave each other permission to walk away without even stopping to apologise. Apologies and regrets could wait for emails. In case we coped with being together each of us was to bring a flask of tea and a sandwich.
That morning was particularly frightening. I hadn't travelled further than my garden in a couple of years except for health reasons. I am very proud of myself to have made it to the park and I'm very proud of Erica too. I know it was just as difficult for her. But we did it. We both managed it. She arrived five minutes before me and I spotted her on one of the benches anxiously squeezing and pressing her fingers to keep some control. I know that she was having to fight with herself not to get up and call for a taxi to meet her at the park gate. If I had arrived first I'm not sure I'd have stayed. I sat down beside her and we said hello. Then we fell into a silence. It was awful. Somehow we didn't give up. Eventually Erica turned to me and asked me a question. It was the first one she had asked in her first email. And I answered just as I had before. We smiled at each other and at that moment knew there was a possibility things might turn out okay.
Now I have a friend. We meet regularly. In the park. And at each other's homes too. We've even learned how to take a bus - together not alone - to the seaside and we've sat on the beach and listened to the world. We still struggle every day and our social life isn't much more than just each other. We can't do cafes and we don't manage new people or going into places we don't know. But we have each other and that's infinitely more than we had a year ago.
In another year, who knows? Perhaps we'll have encouraged each other further and lifted each other into new possibilities. Perhaps we'll have new people. I'd like to be able to join an art group and most of all I'd like to be able to take Erica out for a meal to celebrate the one year anniversary of that first email. I've told her that and we're currently working out how we can make it happen.
I have a friend. And in friendship I have a future worth staying alive for. Together we will learn what it means to be free.