Coping: I have lost all patience for unreliable friends
My mother’s death has changed my capacity for friendship
A school friend has declared her intent to rekindle our long-dormant friendship, but I am wary. Photograph: iStock
Adolescence comes back to me in memory mostly as a series of negative feelings. Feelings of being crushed in a Catholic school where asking questions was met with disapproval. Feeling trapped and ashamed inside a body that puffed and bloomed its way out of childhood, and into the bloated unknown. Feeling completely out of place among the girls at my school and too inarticulate to put my finger on the source of my unease.
I had a handful of friends, but never felt fully at ease in my own skin; the summers were spent mostly alone in my room with a book, waiting. At the time, I thought that I was waiting for the crushing feeling to end.
Despite later going on to third level, I loathed school. Trudging in there each day to be told what and how to think and dress and behave left a hot fist of anger clenching in my gut. The days were propelled forwards only by my intense desire for it to be over.
My mother, recognising that this level of self-indulgent desolation was a bit much even for a teenage girl, supported me in changing schools. It was then that I made my first real friend.
She possessed all of the characteristics I felt were so lacking in me – eloquence, confidence, seriously heavy eye make-up – and the world seemed bigger and more full of possibility than it had before. The year opened me to the world, and it was a good thing, too.
That was my Leaving Cert year. The following September I left my home in Limerick to study in Dublin. I came home at weekends to work in a bookshop where my friend worked and had got me a job, and our adventures continued without the weight of responsibility that inevitably comes with adulthood.
Our lives diverged
After a couple of years, we lost touch. She became increasingly absent and unreliable, and our lives diverged.
The bookshop closed when the recession hit hard, and I got a job in Dublin to cut down on travel time and focus on my studies.
I tried to get in touch with her a couple of times, but she would lose phones or change numbers, and eventually I stopped trying.
Last week, after more than eight years, I got an email from her. I could hear her voice as I read the text. It was that same irreverent, easy eloquence that I remember so well. The email was funny and sincere, with that familiar tone of stubborn determination that she had when we were 18. The email declared her intent to rekindle the friendship, but I am wary.
Friends fell away
I haven’t answered the email yet. I’m not sure whether I will. There’s always a risk, when someone turns up from your past, that they expect you or the relationship to be unchanged, but that can never be.
It’s hard to know whether there is anything to say. My mother’s illness and subsequent death just over six months ago has changed my capacity for friendship. So many friends fell away. Some stopped contacting me and I haven’t heard from them since. Others have apologised for ceasing contact, saying “I didn’t know what to say”. I didn’t either, but I have lost patience with unreliable friends.
At the time, I went back to my favourite philosophers who write in detail about friendship. Aristotle’s Philia is about reciprocity and respect: a mutually improving bond. For Epicurus, friendship is a deeply meaningful source of security and connection. At times, he advocates sacrificing for your friends and expecting the same in return.
Friendship offers security from the outside world. It seems clear that, however you define friendship, it is necessarily a mutual bond between equals. Loss has made me older and less tolerant. My youthful tolerance for friendship on the other person’s terms is gone. When you lose your family and find yourself alone, the people who stick around do so by choice, and not by blood.
Those who remain even when you have nothing to offer them but the weakest, most anaemic version of yourself are friends. Friendship is hard to define, but we recognise it when we see it.