One of my most reliable weekend pleasures is reading Philip Galanes's Social Qs column in the New York Times. I find his advice to be consistently intelligent, kind, and witty, and because the questions he chooses to respond to don't usually reflect my experience, they offer a valuable window into the social situations other people deal with.
Last week, I finally saw myself in a letter: "I have been close with a family member since she was a little girl. She is now the mother of two young children. I am also a mother, so I know how time-consuming that is. But I don’t understand why she has time to post on Facebook but doesn’t have time to answer my emails. I have tried commenting on her posts, but that doesn’t work, either. I am a baby boomer, and she is a Gen X-er. Can you explain what’s going on? Anonymous"
I am a baby boomer, but I, too, am guilty of posting on Facebook (and writing blog posts about the fun things I am doing) while neglecting to respond to friends' emails and phone calls. Over the past several years, I have lost three friendships that I valued because of this issue.
In all three cases, the breakups occurred during family crises that I didn't feel moved to share with outsiders — and I think that was part of the problem. These friends didn't consider themselves "outsiders," and they truly were insiders in my affections. But for me, family loyalty trumps communication with even very good friends, and these times were riddled with stories that were not mine to tell.
There is more to it, of course. I have ADHD. This disorder manifests differently in everyone, but in my case, it means that whatever I am doing at the moment is the only thing in my universe. This works well for me as a therapist and supervisor — I tend to give patients and supervisees 100% of my attention during sessions—and as a performer; I am usually able to embrace whatever reality the scene demands with a whole heart.
For an adult functioning in the material world, though, it is a challenge. I drop a lot of plates. At times of stress, I am forced to triage — my family first, then my work, then my friends is the way it usually falls out, and sometimes time and energy run out before I can attend to everyone who should be a priority. I know that more organized people don't have this problem, and believe me, I have beaten myself up for my inadequacy in this area more often than I can recount here.
I am also vulnerable to depression, especially in the winter. Medication sometimes helps, but more often it doesn't. When it hits (also often at times of extreme stress, such as family crises) it takes everything I have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. This is something I have been reluctant to go public with, as depression or sadness was considered a weakness in my family of origin, and weaknesses were areas of shame that we needed to keep hidden. As a psychologist I know this is nonsense, but it has taken me a long time to gather the courage to be open about this.
So of course I was blogging and posting about only fun things. Blogging and posting are part of my work—blogging is an actual job, and as a performer I need to publicize shows and other events, and make them sound enjoyable (which they are!). That is part of "putting one foot in front of the other."
Each time a friend has ended the friendship — and in all three cases the end came as a dramatic surprise to me; I had been thinking of these friends fondly and intending to write a long message as soon as things settled down — I reacted first with defensive disbelief, and then with agonizing self recrimination. I was a horrible person, I felt, who didn't deserve these fine friends.
Over time, though, I came to realize that while I was a bad friend in this respect, I was a good friend to others during the same period. When one friend had a serious medical issue, I visited him regularly in the hospital and then at home, and accompanied him to follow up medical visits when his wife was unavailable. When another had an agonizing marital breakup, I invited her to move in with our family. She declined, but she shared many meals with us, and shared her heartbreak with me.
The difference was that these friends got my attention. They told me what was happening to them, and what they needed. They didn't stand there quietly, waiting for me to notice that I had been derelict. Too often, I just don't notice these things.
When I realized this, and was able to view our differences as just that — differences, not fatal flaws on either side — I was able to think about ways to address this. For one thing, I worked to become more open about my weaknesses and vulnerabilities, both in person and on the page, to give friends a chance to form more realistic expectations. For another, I am more careful about whom I become close to. Some people need to stay in close, even daily, touch. I understand this — I need it myself with my close family. But I don't have the organizational capacity to engage in this sort of contact with everyone I care about, and now, if I see that someone expects it of me, no matter how wonderful a person s/he is, I back off. There is no way it will end well.
Fortunately, I have many good friends who are more like me — there when we know we are needed, and otherwise living our own lives and happy to hear from one another whenever it occurs. And I know that at least two of the friends who have left me have other, very close friends who don't let them down, and I am happy to
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