Friends and other conundrums

This week’s Remember the Time Blog Hop has the theme Imaginary Friends

Remember the Time Blog Hop

What is a friend? From the books that I read and the TV shows that I watched, a friend was somebody with whom one shared everything. Best friends would do fun things together, talk freely about thoughts and feelings, sleep over at each other’s houses. There would be love, respect and mutual trust in warm, fuzzy abundance.

Except at eight years old I didn’t think like that. This is my adult interpretation of how I remember thinking at that time. As we all should know by now, memory can be a cunning trickster; who knows how it really was.

I do remember having a couple of playmates before I was eight. On my first day at school, aged five, I sat beside the one I was taken to play with most (our mothers were friends) and wondered why she kept sitting in her chair as she wet herself. Other children cried in front of everyone without shame, which I also couldn’t understand. The behaviour of these children perplexed me.

A year or so later a local boy I liked to play with took a couple of photographs of me looking as if I was about to ride my sister’s bicycle before I learned to do so. I asked for a camera for my next birthday. I spent time with these children and liked their toys, but were they friends?

And so I would consider that my first, best friend came into my life when I was around eight years old. We would play at each other’s houses after school and I enjoyed those afternoons. We may even have become the sort of friends I thought we should be as we got older, but her family moved to a house several miles away and sent her to a different grammar school. Although we didn’t lose touch until university, we drifted apart and found new friends to be closer to.

At primary school though, she was the one that I played with the most. She was also the one who I always wanted to do better than, although I never succeeded in this aspiration no matter how hard I tried. In tests, if she was top of the class then I would be second. She won a slew of dancing medals compared to my two or three. She went on holiday by aeroplane to Majorca or Tenerife while I was driven to a caravan in Devon or Cornwall. I did not feel pleasure at her experiences and accomplishments, but rather the green eyed monster of jealousy.

I took out my frustrations at my shortcomings in my imaginary life. I did not have an imaginary friend, I had a slew of imaginary enemies who I showed up as lesser beings than I, before torturing and murdering them in the fields, woods and glens around my parent’s home.

I would be a master archer, hiding behind trees and killing my enemies with a single shot. I would be a master assassin, aiming my gun from a bedroom window and taking out those who made me feel small as they walked down the street. I would run across fields as fast as the wind while those I hated got left behind and were laughed at. My bicycle was my sleek and beautiful horse on which I escaped the hordes who wished to put me down.

The games that I played on my own allowed me to be the action hero, powerful and admired by all. I would save the world and gain the wonder and attention that I craved. When I played pretend games with my friend I had to compromise and share. Much as I enjoyed her company, if I got above myself in our game she would simply get up and go home.

I was a slow, fat child. Sometimes I would stuff pillows up my t shirt and look at myself in the mirror, wondering what my mother would think if I ate all the cakes, biscuits, sweets and crisps that I longed for and turned out like that. In my games I was lithe and beautiful like the little girls who were chosen to wear the pretty tutus in my ballet class, where I was put at the back with the other awkward floor thumpers.

Towards the end of primary school I played my imaginary games less and developed a desire to fight back in real life. I still longed for admiration and dreamt of a day when I would gain fabulous qualifications and a job where all would look up to me.

Friendship is still something of a conundrum to me, but at least I can now gain genuine pleasure from the experiences and accomplishments of those I care for. My imaginary enemies continue to be psychologically tortured and murdered in abundance; these days I write it all down.

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You can read the other great posts in this week’s link up by clicking below

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My world

It can be a challenge at times to take my own advice. I went for a lovely walk this week with a friend. I really enjoy this lady’s company, especially as I feel I can talk to her without having to watch what I say. We have known each other for a number of years and have many mutual friends. It is not that we are particularly close, more that she is accepting of other’s idiosyncrasies and, even when she does not agree with or understand behaviours, will listen and offer support. I value that she has stuck by me, even when I have been backing away from others and the prospect of company.

It is how I am dealing with those others that has made me realise how difficult I am finding it to act as I know I should. I have a suspicion that I have offended a few people with my behaviour over the past year. As I have been avoiding social gatherings there have not been occasions to observe how I am now treated; my suspicions are based on nuance and whispers picked up through unrelated discussion. When I raised the topic with my friend I felt that she did not wish to become involved and I backed down. This is not her problem.

I would always say that it is foolish to become concerned with how others see me. Those who care about me will accept me as I am; those who do not are best avoided anyway. How hard that advice is to follow in practice. I do not like to think that some of those I once socialised with regularly would now choose to avoid me, even though I am choosing not to socialise. There is little sense to the way my mind is scratching away at this conundrum.

It seems that I am allowing myself to fall into the trap that I have seen in others; that I am acting as though I am the fulcrum of events that affect me. In reality I am a slight breeze passing by other’s lives, whose effect decreases as my absence extends. Whatever others may think of me, I very much doubt that they think of me often.

It does distress me though that others have taken my backing away personally. I want to let them know that my choice not to join in was all about me, not them. I couldn’t cope with company and, for my own wellbeing, had to take time out. Yet how can I barge in and try to make things right when there may not even be a wrong to be considered? This entire concern could be in my head, a figment of over analysis.

Does any of this make sense? Sometimes I think that I am nursing a kind of madness; other times I feel so selfish. The one thing that I do know is that I can no longer cope with large, social gatherings and I have no idea why. If my actions have offended my friends then I do not know how to put that right.

Human relationships can be so complex and difficult to navigate. I am immensely grateful that, through all of the things that have changed in the past year or so, my little family have remained constant and there for me. I have not had to suffer rejection or unhappiness because I can still have a lot of fun with the people who matter most to me. I love and I am loved. With that base I have the strength to face the rest.

We each live our lives looking out from inside the vessel that is all others can perceive. The world may not revolve around us, but our world does. For now I am sailing on choppy waters, buffeted by my waves of concern over how my behaviour is being seen by others. I need to listen to my own counsel and accept that this should not be a major issue. I need to find the calm waters of self acceptance and relax.

Just in case my post has been a bit too serious, allow this dalek to help you relax. We like Doctor Who in this house. 

Numbers

Some people go to parties to socialise, or to organised groups, both formal and informal. They make music or things, exercise or discuss books; they get together with like minded people to enjoy their company, chat and hang out. They meet up with friends, get to know new faces, catch up on gossip and each other’s lives. Man is a sociable creature who thrives when welcomed and accepted by others.

For much of my adult life I did not question that this was the way I should live. I agonised over my inability to gain acceptance into any close friendship group. I had friends but we were not open with each other, not in the way I had been conditioned to think we should be.

And then, when I finally found my way into a clique, I discovered that I still struggled. I could go through the motions of attending and hosting the small and larger events as expected, but would worry afterwards about the detail of the things that I had said or done. I would do my best to cover my growing anxiety, but enjoyment was marred by the after effects as I suffered increasing bouts of mental self-flagellation.

Withdrawing from this way of life was not a concious decision but an act of self preservation. I could no longer cope with the days spent trying to deal with the growing anguish that followed each social encounter. No matter how often I told myself that my reaction was foolish and unnecessary, it was still all too real to me. The turmoil had become more than I could bear; I needed to allow myself space to be calm and peaceful.

I still very much enjoy getting together with a friend. I can cope with a walk or a meal out when it is with one or two people. Although I will still feel concern about what I have said and how I have come across at times, I do not wish to avoid society entirely.

I find it interesting that, given my anxiety when dealing with people face to face, the space in which I am most comfortable socially is on line. I know many people who feel that social networks are too public to allow them to relax; I know a few who are appalled that I share so much.

There are aspects of my on line presence, however, that give me cause to question my acceptance in this community. None of my many accounts are followed by large numbers of people; does this mean that I am lacking in some way? I do not agonise over the numbers but rather mull over what they may mean.

I do not know how one gains a following in cyber space. My Twitter, Tumblr and Pinterest accounts are all as public as this blog, yet attract little attention. It is only on my Facebook account that I actively manage the privacy settings. Even there the numbers tell a tale; I know all who I have befriended on the site but am not accepted as a friend by all I know.

There are many little homilies and sayings that pop up from time to time entreating us to take notice only of those who offer acceptance of what we are and to avoid those who bring us down. I wonder what it says about me that I am of interest to so few. I am wondering if the numbers matter.

It is not good for my mental health to dwell too much on what others may think of me. I wish to grow as a person; to be kind, understanding and accepting of others. When I look to improve my knowledge and to question why I think as I do I value input. For this I need interaction, yet I struggle to cope with that which is offered; to attract attention from the like minded individuals who must be out there.

Yesterday evening I was trying to discuss a book I am reading with my husband. He was nodding and making all the appropriate noises in response to my enthusiastic comments but, as I continued, I could see his interest wane. He had not read the book and had no views to impart. When I converse with others it too often feels like this; I am eagerly trying to share but am choosing the wrong audience. It is not that I am disliked, but that I struggle to tailor my interactions in a mutually satisfying way.

And that is my lack. Others seem to slip so naturally into discourse with whoever they are with. Perhaps that is why I struggle face to face when I can read the body language and worry about how I am being perceived, or when I know that I will torment myself afterwards with anxiety over whatever verbal diarrhea my nervousness caused me to impart.

On line there is just as much scope to appear foolish but it is the reader’s choice to follow or friend; to interact or ignore. And so we are back to those numbers. I love that I can use my social networks to keep in touch with my family and friends in far flung places; those who I would choose to see more of if distance were not an issue. Perhaps I ask too much in expecting to use cyber space in any other way. Perhaps I am asking more of myself than I am capable of being.

An example of a social network diagram.

Pressure to parent to a standard

New parents are inundated with criticism thinly veiled as advice. The excitement and anticipation of a first pregnancy can all too quickly descend into panic when that amazing little bundle of humanity is placed in the parent’s arms and they are expected to know what to do and to cope. Little wonder that, whilst trying to recovery physically and mentally from the effects of the birth, the sleep deprived mother can feel overwhelmed amidst the attention and concern of well meaning friends, relations and the so called experts.

I am sure that I was not alone in being profoundly shocked at how much my life changed following the birth of my first child. I had fondly imagined that I would continue much as before, simply bringing baby along. Instead I became isolated and exhausted; I felt obliged to pretend that all was just great when anyone sought me out, but tried to avoid contact with those who would try to mould my behaviour to that which they believed was best for baby. Their pearls of wisdom made me feel such a failure; in my sleep deprived mind, if I should be doing things differently then I was being perceived to be doing things wrong. At the time I was all too ready to believe that this could be true.

Sixteen years and two more children later I have a different mindset but I am still learning. Sure I would now feel confident caring for a baby, a toddler and a young child; I have been there and done that with results that I find pretty gratifying. What I haven’t yet sussed out though is the best way to raise teenagers. As our children grow and change into the individuals that they will become, we as parents need to learn as we go along how to deal with each new phase of their lives. After all the unasked for advice that I have been given over the years, some of which I have tried but that was so wrong for my particular children, I am wary of listening to anyone other than myself. My instincts have been far more helpful than any book, newspaper article or voice of experience from someone who doesn’t live my life with my kids.

There have been times though when I have given in to the peer pressure because I didn’t want my child to feel that they were missing out or because someone managed to convince me that I really ought to act in a certain way. Looking back, these were the times when I did get it wrong for my children.

Take sleepovers. Books aimed at young girls often tell stories of happy friendships cemented at fun filled overnight events. When my daughter asked to have a few friends round to stay for her seventh birthday I agreed, albeit with some trepidation. It turned out that sleepovers were not so common at such a young age; she may well have been the first in her class to host such an gathering. I learnt from the lack of sleep not to allow a repeat performance until she was several years older, and then only if the girls did not disturb the adults. I threatened no more sleepovers ever if this rule was broken and my daughter understood and agreed. She has enjoyed having many friends round to stay since without issue.

My younger son had a single friend to stay quite a number of times before he asked to host a larger gathering when he was ten. I set the same rules but they were broken big time. Four boys continually doing roly polys around the mattress strewn room at 2am, and the noisy hilarity that ensued when asked to stop, was unacceptable in a home where others wished to sleep undisturbed. Sleepovers for him were summarily banned; if friends cannot be trusted to behave as asked then they are not welcome.

My elder son lost his right to birthday parties involving groups of friends when he was nine. Without asking my permission, he invited a boy from his class who was known to be particularly lively. This boy ended up dancing on the table during the birthday tea which subsequently descended into a near riot. Since then I have limited my son’s friend invites to one person at a time and only for short visits. As he has grown older I have got to meet few of his new school friends. He has generally preferred to keep much of his social life away from home and private.

I was therefore somewhat surprised when he asked if he could have a few friends round to stay this weekend to celebrate the end of term. It seemed only fair that he be allowed the same opportunity as his siblings to prove that he can host such an event sensibly. As long time Scouts and regular campers I am quite used to my children sleeping out in mixed groups. The fact that he wished to have both boys and girls round seemed healthy to me; it should be possible to be friends with both sexes, without prejudice or preconceived notions of expected, unacceptable behaviour. I have always tried to take the view that I will start out by trusting my children. It is only if they abuse this trust and act foolishly that I will impose restrictions on what they may or may not do.

Once again though, it seems that I am breaking new ground. I was required to talk to a number of the parents of the young people involved in tonight’s proposed gathering to reassure them about nocturnal arrangements (separate rooms for boys and girls) and the proximity of adults (my husband and I will be present in the house at all times). As these people do not know anything about me or my family I can understand and appreciate that they require a little reassurance. However, a seed of doubt has now been sown; is my instinct to trust these young people, most of whom I have never met, naive?

My personal view remains that, if a parent thinks that their child may act foolishly, then they should not grant permission for the child to take part in that activity. I am not going to spoil the evening for my son by sitting in with this group of fifteen year olds (how embarrassing would that be for everyone!); he will be responsible for ensuring that rules are followed and must bear the consequences if things do not go according to plan. I can keep an eye and an ear on what is going on but cannot offer guarantees about how other people’s children will behave.

My instinct tells me that it is a good thing that my son is comfortable about bringing his friends home; that a friendship group containing both boys and girls offers balance; that he can be trusted to understand the rules and ensure that they are followed. The questioning and unspoken criticism of a minority of other parents has, however, tarnished my confidence. I have allowed myself to care about what other people think of me; I wish I could be stronger than that.

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My happiness is not just about me

Television shows and films are full of friendship groups. Whatever misadventures the protagonists must deal with, they will turn to their good friends for emotional support. Teenage girls will indulge in open and meaningful discussions as they lie around in each other’s bedrooms; women will sit down with close friends and a few bottles of wine to spill out their concerns for all to debate and put right; men will open up their hearts at a ball game or barbeque, sit down on a park bench with a long known mate at a key moment, or seek out a female friend and show an emotional side previously unknown. All can talk freely without fear of judgement. Does this ever happen in real life?

Perhaps there are plenty of people out there who can totally rely on a few individuals to always be there for them, however messed up they may be. These wonderful people will drop everything they may be involved with at any time, open their doors and their hearts to accept and forgive whatever behaviour has caused the grief. They will support without judgement, regularly and reliably wiping away the tears and helping the sufferer to move on. Whatever is happening in their personal space, they will put their own lives aside when needed.

I have and have had many, lovely friends over the years but the only person I have felt comfortable opening up entirely to is my sister. I would never expect her to drop everything in her life to support me though. I recognise that she has her own experiences to enjoy, issues to deal with and family to support. I really don’t know if I am unusual in being unable to expose my innermost feelings to friends or if this is typical. Perhaps the fictional portrayal is just another simplification for the sake of brevity and entertainment. Perhaps it is real and just beyond my ability to experience.

This past year has been challenging for me in terms of dealing with the way I am and the way I am thinking and feeling. I needed to put my thoughts in order but found when I tried to talk about what I was going through the listeners did not react as I needed. I turned to this blog instead; in writing it down I was able to understand myself a little better and the feedback I received was also helpful. In my experience, oversharing face to face causes embarrassment and the issues are too often misunderstood. I found it hard to be as open in conversation as I could be when I wrote.

During the worst days of my mini meltdown, other’s views did not penetrate. There were a few comments left that helped; these did not offer solutions but rather simple validation and support. I needed to know that I was not going mad, that I was not being unreasonable in wishing to be heard and my needs considered if not agreed with. I needed time to move on and experience the gradual improvement that, deep down, I knew would come. I was never anything like as bad as other friends are and have been. I came across this blog post on how a true depressive can feel:  http://hyperboleandahalf.blogspot.co.uk/, but it would be unhelpful to those who suffer to claim that I understand.

I value my friends highly; old, new, face to face and on line. I am grateful for their presence in my life; I hope that they will continue to be there. I also think that many of us live our lives hiding much of what we think or do from the world, even those we may feel close to. We wish to be well thought of and court good opinion. We choose to act the part we want to be, maintaining the illusion by never speaking of what goes on backstage.

Although I recognise that I am responsible for my own happiness, I would not be happy without others around. Man is a sociable creature and will thrive in a welcoming crowd. Whilst I have no wish to return to the large gatherings of cheerful, partying people that I once enjoyed; I still gain so much from meeting up with those I care about to chat and share. I may temper what I say and select topics carefully, but I still gain emotional nourishment from these encounters.

Are there people out there who can be totally open with a group of friends? Perhaps my problem is more one of feeling the need to be myself. Perhaps others get by just fine being the person that they allow the world to see.

It is unhelpful to suggest that we have failed at friendship if we have failed to find a group who live as closely together as those portrayed in fictional shows. Any friendship depends on the character of the individuals involved. In the ebb and flow of life, all are affected by their differing experiences and will react and change over time in ways unknown. True friends will weather the storms and accept the changes. How can they be there every step of the way though, when they have their own lives to live?

Friendship bracelet