Wednesday 12 February 2020

Love and Friendship: What Valentine's Day Means to Me

Many moons ago I marked Valentine’s Day each year by exchanging friendship cards with one of my dearest friends, PJ. (Pamela Jane. She was Jane to her family, PJ or Pam to friends.) This was long before social media and instant messaging (yes really!) and we wrote letters to each other all the time, often by return of post. For years we shared the ups and downs of our lives that way; our hopes and fears and dreams for the future. I’m not sure we ever called each other best friends but that’s what we were.

Over time we drifted apart, as friends do sometimes. Our letters became less frequent. At some point we stopped sending each other Valentine’s cards. And then she got sick. Many years later I included our story in the first book I wrote with Fran.

I knew little of the disease [multiple sclerosis], and never took the trouble to ask or research what it meant. My friend spoke pragmatically of the impact it would have on her life, imagining and planning for a gradual physical deterioration. The illness advanced far more rapidly than anyone anticipated. I watched helplessly as the woman I had known was overwhelmed by disease, despair, and grief. The depth of her need terrified me. I wrote to her every day for what turned out to be the last two years of her life, but never once picked up the telephone. I visited her home only once, after her death, to attend a memorial ceremony.

From High Tide, Low Tide: The Caring Friend's Guide to Bipolar Disorder

For a time PJ replied to my letters herself. Sometimes she had someone write on her behalf. Eventually the replies ceased altogether. Maybe she resented my attention by that point or was simply too ill to notice. Only those who stood by her could tell me and I’m too scared to ask them. It doesn’t matter now. What does matter is that I wasn’t there for her in ways that might have helped or meant something to her. That’s not something I’m proud of. She died way too young (whatever that means) in 2005 at the age of forty-three. I miss her, especially at this time of year.

I still have a lot to learn about being there in the right ways at the right time. I tend to be either “too much” or “not enough.” Two or three years ago I was struggling with another friendship. My friend had a lot to deal with. I hadn’t turned my back or walked away but I was failing to support her effectively. Things had become pretty fractured. In fact it’s fair to say our friendship was on the line. One night Fran asked me if I was so earnest about helping this friend because I believed I’d failed others in the past, PJ included. I’m sure there’s some truth there. Guilt can be a powerful motivator. One way or another – I’m not sure either of us knows how – my friend and I made it through those times and are still together.

A few days ago I hurt one of my best friends. I’m not happy that happened and my failure to recognise how much she was hurting only exacerbated the injury, but I’m proud that we worked it through the way we did. I do feel I’m learning. I messaged her the next day:

We are honest with each other. You get to call me out when I do or say something wrong. I get to do the same. And we each hurt a little when it happens, because it is painful when you hurt or upset someone you care about. And we learn a little more about each other. And we make up. And we move on, a little bit wiser for it.

That seems to me what a healthy friendship is all about. We all mess up. What matters is how we deal with it. I was never able to do that with PJ. Her illness and the impact it had on her body, and ultimately her mental health, terrified me. I had no idea how to respond and never asked what she needed. And she never dared tell me or ask, perhaps because she knew I wasn’t up to the task. What she most likely wanted was for me not to turn my back on her, and despite all those letters and cards, that’s what I did. This isn’t about beating myself up over not being a perfect friend, then or now. No one is. To be honest I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with someone who was perfect! But it is about being honest, with myself and others.

So here’s a promise to all my friends this Valentine’s Day. Card or no card, I pledge to be the best friend to you I can be; the friend you deserve.


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