Loneliness, friends and social support

Yes, often I identify content spillover between my job and my writing life. This week was no exception. Early Tuesday I taught a class virtually, spending time reminding the participants how powerful social support is on our quest to worker well-being. A few hours later the topic reappeared in a “journaling for well-being” workshop I taught with an entirely different audience. Then, the next day as I drove home from the Bend OEA conference, OPB re-aired an interview with author Marisa Franco on her 2022 book Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make–and Keep–Friends. While I haven’t read the book, Dr. Franco’s interview included snippets that spoke to me. And as it often does, my brain began spinning away from thinking about social support at work and the impact of loneliness, to loneliness and friend-making in my own life. When I pulled into a (very hot) rest area to prepare to take a work Zoom call, true to my habits, I first dictated into my phone, rough thoughts further refined here.

I always wanted a best friend. I was a bit of a loner growing up, a product of rural living, two family moves between 6th and 8th grade, a busy close family, and who knows what else. As I make this journey into my past, it feels relevant to pull up this paragraph from My Music Man.

“NUDGING INTO JUNIOR high, I was a shy new kid facing the intimidating task of navigating the roadmap to thirteen-year-old girl-friend-making. My end-of-summer whisper of a friend remained mostly that: she already boasted other strong friendships, and I peeked in as an awkward outsider. Boys, I knew, were an open book. Most of the ones I knew burped, farted, and told you what they thought. I hadn’t figured out the secret life of girls. I had poured over Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret in desperate attempts to crack the code. I had reread many times the instruction manual offered in the free Welcome to Womanhood pink boxes freely offered by Kotex. Wondering if, in fact, this day would ever really come to me. Begging Mom to let me order a bra from the Sears catalogue, even though I didn’t need one.”

My Music Man, Chapter 17, Interrupted

I too have thought and read a lot about friendships in adulthood: their power and how their absence can trigger our own loneliness. And how the presence of social connections is associated with longer and healthier lives. Dr. Franco shares her observation that not only can it seem difficult to make friends as we get older, but that activities and groups can help us do this yet our engagement and attitude affect our successes. As I think back to my high school days, while I am in contact with some friends via social media, it is the friends from my athletic teams who I have the most intimate associations and feelings even today. Might it be those people I too feel the safest with? Even if our values today don’t entirely line up, our prior emotional journeys – wins, losses, injuries, joys and sadness – even today bind us.

As Mom aged, I too thought about the importance of dear friends in her lifetime. I noticed as she lost regular connections with a few when she and Dad first moved to West Linn from Southeast Portland. And yet, our smart mom joined a memoir writing group at the nearby Adult Community Center. She found, as I have in my own present day writing group, the intimacy created when sharing personal writing. After she died I heard from several of the group members while one came to her memorial service. I too watched the lifetime friends who stayed near and dear to her as her own dementia affected her ability to be how she always had been before, and those who faded away. I suspect many of us are unsure how to be with someone whether it be dementia or another chronic health condition. I remind myself the importance of friendship, and being a friend, during thick and thin, good and bad, happy and sad.

It was only after listening to the radio show that it struck me how much I too have written about friendships in my fiction. In Beyond the Ripples, Annie hopes for a pen pal (just as I did with my own note in a bottle) – someone who might understand her. Not long after Amelia and Sarah are connected through unusual circumstances of a note in a bottle, they develop a friendship at a time they are both struggling to deal with happenings in their lives. They come into each other’s lives at a perfect time, but they both dedicate the energy to make it happen. Finally, in Humanity’s Grace, Paul’s mother Marjorie worries that she didn’t do more to help Paul continue his friendship with Marie, his only close childhood friend.

During fall quarter of high school I did meet my first best friend, only to be devastated the following year when her family relocated to Maryland. And yet, if we are lucky, we find a good friend and take the steps to nourish and sustain it. All these years later I am joyful to realize, even in other days of loneliness, this friend and I have shared a lifetime of connection: as college roommates, cycling together through Europe, acting as each other’s “maids of honor” and walking through parenthood, and aging of ourselves and our parents.

I too have been surprised how important my professional friends have been to me throughout my career. The take home? While we may not share identical personal values, we all care about our work mission. It is here that I am so aware of the holes created when they retire: I do not see them through our mutual work connections, and must remember to make efforts with those most important to me. I too met friends through my children and spouse, being involved in my kids’ schools, classrooms and activities. Ah yes, we must have the energy, bandwidth and opportunity to be able to engage in this manner in order to benefit from this social support. We too must feel welcomed, another tip for those of us imagining how to help others feel socially supported.

Early in the pandemic I felt deep losses and loneliness, exacerbated by difficulties at work. I felt it strongest after Mom died last year – after all, she was my oldest, closest friend who knew nearly every curve I’d taken in life, even if she needed to be reminded about some. I particularly felt the absence of two close friends who had died the year before, holes where once we had shared intimate time, walks and conversations. Too, I felt I had lost distinct friendship groups my two friends had at times included me in. Much of my life I have been a social “floater” among larger groups, preferring time spend with one or two. It took me time to acknowledge while I may feel hurt or loss not to be included in occasional social circles with the absence of these two friends, it continues to be close connections I crave, not crowds. (And, regardless of what social activity I’m engaged in, I know after a couple hours I need to be alone with a book.) Loneliness is amplified by our own echo chamber about exclusion or sometimes false assumptions. I’m grateful I landed on recognizing what is most fulfilling for me is intimate time with a friend. I began to reach out to friends I knew less well but hadn’t made time before to get to know better, while reminding myself about being grateful for the time I had with those special beings no longer with us.

My takeaways from this radio interview? We must consider our attachment style to understand how we can successfully make and manage friendships. I’d add – part of this mix is the kind of friendships we consider most meaningful to us. Too, it is no surprise to hear Dr. Franco’s reminder, or was it a warning? Friendships don’t simply happen organically like they might have seemed to when we were five on a playground and each kid we connected with was instantly our best friend. Yet, perhaps the truths on the playground ring true throughout life: be kind, look for those who might be excluded and don’t pre-judge yourself or others.

4 thoughts on “Loneliness, friends and social support

  1. This blog has been on my mind for several days. I’ve been thinking of all the friends made through school, work, places lived, etc. There are many that I’ve lost contact but thought about those special times we shared. There are those that have been a thrill to reconnect with after many years wondering how they were doing. I am an extrovert and get my energy from being around others. I am grateful to have had many experiences with great, loving friends.

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  2. Finally had a chance to read a few of your recent blogs and came across this one! I know you already are aware of how much I love you but wanted to say it again from the same heart at 60 that still carries you deeply within it since we were 13! Such a gift our friendship is! Best change the date on most recent photo of us at Swiftcurrent Pass. Those were hard earned miles slogging through the snow in June 2022!

    Liked by 1 person

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