On Friendship & Healing
We take turns swimming in the pool. It’s a hot August afternoon in Sacramento. I’m sitting on the sidelines, dangling my feet over the pool’s edge, while I listen to Becca slice her arms through the turquoise water. After she swims a few laps, we swap places. Together, we’re learning how not to love relationships that took more from us then we gave to them. We both find our situations difficult to process, so we take turns.
I take my turn in the deep end, diving in head first, churning up water, and kicking it away, while Becca takes her seat on the edge of the pool to listen, watch, and wait. We switch places again. It is in these reciprocal cycles that we heal.
* * *
I met Becca when I was at my lowest low. She found me one Friday night sitting at a beer stained table, drawing cartoons by candlelight. Everyone else in the college house was taking their final rounds of shots in preparation for the night’s festivities. The cartoons I drew depicted myself at the time: depressed, insecure, anxious, and angry. Though I hardly knew her, Becca sat down across from me, looked me in the eyes, and asked
“What will it take to convince you to go out tonight?”
To her surprise I responded “Not very much.”
Becca gleefully jumped up, pulled me down to my cavernous room in the basement, and picked out an outfit for me to wear. Before that night I was a shell of a person, empty of joy. Becca filled me with the first drop.
I had spent the last few months alone in my room, unable to move. I thought I had driven two people I loved away due to sadness and anxiety. My boyfriend left me for a more accomplished musician and generally bubblier person, and my best friend stopped coming over because she was sick of my complaints and tears. In short, I was a massive, emotional burden that neither wanted to carry anymore. I figured it was my fault and didn’t reach out to any other friend for fear of driving them away too. I thought I was incapable of healthy friendships and relationships. Therefore I’d isolate myself until I felt better and was no longer a burden to others.
Loneliness sucks you into yourself. The days inside my room added up, my art became self-involved and obsessive, and I became increasingly nervous about getting up and going out. One day I was so anxious to go to class that I threw up on the basketball player’s lawn during my walk to campus. I promptly turned back around and headed straight for bed. I didn’t want to ask for help because I thought others deserved it more, I didn’t want to eat because I had no appetite, and I didn’t want to be seen because I was scared to watch my ex in public with his new girlfriend and my best friend out socializing with people I’d never even met.
* * *
Becca sits on the edge of the pool, smiling down at me encouragingly. She watches patiently as my legs churn up water and mind churns up memories. After a while, she relieves me to swim her laps and process. Becca is going through a heartbreak of her own, except we’re in opposite positions. She left her girlfriend and is tired of feeling guilty about it. As the sentient person she is, she’s absorbing too much of her ex’s pain. I sense she wants her autonomy back.
We swim together for our final lap. Under the surface of the water, we hear our rhythms blend. It is a moment of synchrony, but by now we both know that pure synchrony cannot last. We make it to the end of the pool as one, then break away from each other to get out of the water.
The sun dries our shoulders. I breathe in the scent of chlorine as Becca joins me on one of those plastic, poolside lounge chairs. She looks down at her body. It is slender with clean edges. Beautiful, though in this moment she doesn’t think so. She asks me about sex. Though I don’t remember clearly, I believe I talk about body-positivity, communication, and creativity. I ask her about sexuality. I have more experience with the physical act of sex but Becca has more experience with the mental act of it. She is far more in tune with her sexual identity and expression than I am. We learn from each other until our shoulders and faces are pink from exposure.
As the summer draws to a close we continue our reciprocal friendship. When it gets too hot to go outside, we sit in her air conditioned room. She plays ukulele while I sing. She buys me iced coffee, I buy her beer. I lean into her to cry, she provides a shoulder, then we switch. I climb, she belays. She climbs, I spot her.
“You came into my life at a time when I needed someone exactly like you,” Becca writes in a letter to me. “Someone with a capacity to love, hold, share, and support. I was feeling so lost, then you slid into the picture equally lost.”
* * *
Lostness does not have to mean loneliness. I didn't have to wait to feel better to form healthy friendships or relationships. A healthy friendship was the very thing that healed me. With clearer eyes I’m happy to see that the same was true for my ex. It seems he foraged a healthy friendship that then blossomed into a reciprocal, romantic relationship. Now when I see them exchange bluegrass riffs, I smile instead of sneering.
Over time I realized what I was learning that summer, swimming in Sacramento’s community pool with Becca, wasn’t exactly what I thought I was learning. I wasn’t learning how not to love a relationship that took more from me than I from it. I was learning about the nature of relationships themselves. Specifically what relationships are like when they’re reciprocal and what they’re like when they’re consuming.
My ex and I had been in a romantic relationship that consumed us. I was complicit in this consumption and in fact, encouraged it. I wanted to consume him just as much as I wanted to be consumed by him. I wanted to feel what it was to embody him and also highlighted parts of my identity I thought he enjoyed the most—the parts of me I thought he wanted to embody. I learned that if we were swimming in a pool, we would have dived in at the same moment, intertwined our bodies, and eventually sunk, neither of us really taking the time to listen, reflect, or take space from one another. It was good he got out of the water when he did.
Becca and I were both lost in the deep end but she called out to me, and together, we helped each other move forward and find our ways out.
* * *
Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, there are days I wish Becca could come over and drag me out of my house like she did the first night we met. Then I remember I’m really not supposed to leave my house due to health regulations. I still have moments when I fear reaching out to people because I’m nervous I’ll consume them with sadness or scare them away with anxiety. My current partner, who by the way, was a good friend first, reminds me that my friends want to hear from me because, to put it simply, they love me. He talks about how, sometimes, he’ll cold call his friends out of the blue just to talk.
“It’s usually great for both of us,” he says, taking my hand.
“Okay, then I’ll have to try it.”
So yesterday I did. The fire smoke combined with COVID regulations were making me feel incredibly low. My dad stood in front of me defeated, while I sat, frozen on the couch crying. I couldn’t think. I couldn’t move. All I could do was envision everything that was wrong and everything I couldn’t do. He dragged me out to the beach to get us fresh air. Once outside, I was able to remember the whole network of people who are part of a reciprocal bond of love and friendship waiting to support me, and I them. I’ve always had this network of support in some way and it’s only grown larger overtime. How lucky am I?
Like Becca did for me more than a year ago now, I realize I can reach out to a friend, asking them to join me in a conversation. Who knows, I just might help heal them too or help them along with their day, maybe even their year.
Last night I called up my friend, Kate (Yes, we have the same name. No we’re not the same person). Over the course of an hour, my tears dried. All she did was ask a few questions and tell me to run a bath while eating chocolate and streaming Netflix.
There are people who want to take you (virtually) out to the party even when you don’t think that’s the case. It's easy to underestimate the power of reciprocity in friendships and relationships and difficult to realize that even in times of sadness, you can be both the giver and the receiver. I have fondly come to understand that both positions, giver and receiver, offer plenty of joy and healing.