Years ago, I realized I was lonely when I didn’t really have anyone to turn to when I had a new baby in the NICU. A certain level of friend to call when the chips are down. So I got connected at church, plugged in. I met people, made friends, led small groups for years. Problem solved. Until I looked around and realized I was lonely again.
How loneliness snuck up on me
I live in a college town that often feels like a temporary stop for lots of people. I’ve even avoided building friendships with people in jobs that move every couple of years. I thought it was smart until a friend whose husband was a banker moved away, and I realized anyone could leave town without clearing it with me first.
I’ve also been cut off by someone who no longer wishes to be my friend, without explanation and without warning. Being ghosted by someone I don’t know well is one thing. But a good friend of several years? That leaves a bruise. I have had to deal with a deep feeling of rejection, and struggling with trusting that others won’t do the same thing.
I’ve stepped back from leadership roles at church, so the people I once saw weekly or monthly — those friends that were due to frequency, proximity — have also faded out.
My kids have been sick for a week or two a month all year, which always knocks me off the grid. I have gone a week straight, several times this year, without leaving my house except to hit up the pediatrician or the pharmacy.
I’ve backed off of social media, so I’ve lost the illusion of friendship that it provides. Knowing what’s going on in people’s lives — without even speaking to them — gave me a fake sense of social currency and interaction.
Each of these circumstances has chipped away at the relationships in my life, but I didn’t realize it. Until once again, a hospital visit forced my hand.
My one-year-old had a 105-degree fever and I had to take him to the emergency room, with my five-year-old. I couldn’t get ahold of my husband or my in-laws, so I was solo. Thankfully, it was not a blood-gushing type of situation, but I realized that I wasn’t sure who I could call to take my five-year-old home so she could go to bed.
I had let my support system lapse. Again.
Outsourcing the hard work of friendship
Somehow, I’ve been relying on church programming to do the hard work for me. Showing up to meetings or small groups gave me the illusion of friendship. But once I stopped showing up, I’m not sure if anyone noticed. I certainly didn’t do the hard work to maintain many of those relationships.
I led and attended small groups, met some nice people, and then let those relationships expire when the semester ended. I wasn’t sure how to take things from “meet every week in an official capacity” to “grab a coffee once in a while.”
Small groups are not a magic bullet. Frequency and proximity are not the only ingredients in real friendships. They can give us a chance to get to know each other, give us a safe-feeling place to show up and feel less awkward, but they are not enough. Somehow I lost sight of this over the years. There is hard, deep work in getting a friendship off the ground.
Getting over the introvert excuse
Even when I have met people I liked, I often talked myself out of pursuing friendships. “She probably doesn’t want to hang out,” or “I bet she already has a bunch of friends.” I got all Eeyore about it. The truth is, I get tired of inviting. I don’t want to ask someone to hang out and have a potentially awkward latte. I want someone to call me up, buy me nachos, and tell me how great I am. But maybe that’s not very realistic.
I have a friend who is a natural connector. She gets these little groups of people together and melds personalities and organizes dinners and she even enjoys it. I love that — but it’s not me. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s how many people say, “It’s so hard to meet people here. It’s so hard to make friends.” Is nearly everyone sitting by the phone on Friday night, waiting for it to ring? Maybe.
I’ve decided to make a small goal: get over myself. Specifically, try to connect with one friend a week. Stop caring about always feeling like the inviter. If I want to build and rebuild and maintain relationships, I need to put in the effort. I can’t wait for others to do it for me.
Accepting what I can’t change
I’m realistic; I am not looking to be BFFs with everyone. After all, I’m sort of an acquired taste: a Midwesterner living in the South, with lots of opinions and cheesy jokes and I usually eat most of the food. I don’t always feel like I fit in. Maybe I won’t have a group of friends that will show up at my funeral wearing matching tracksuits and fluffy white perms after five decades of friendship.
The truth is, I have been feeling discouraged and tired and hurt. I can let myself spiral and turn into a depressed loner, or I can use those gross bummed-out feelings as a motivation. To make small steps toward people, even though I’m a little beat up by rejection. To continue efforts toward the dear friends who haven’t turned away, who keep showing up in my life. To let people in even though they might hurt me or move away. To open myself to others, even when it’s hard.