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What do adult friendships look like?

· Mental Illness,Friendship,Boundaries

As I become more comfortable with my mental illness, of which depression is the most major form, I also become more reticent. I don't want people to ask me the truth of how I feel, and I wouldn't tell them if they did. I don't reach out to people even when they tell me to, because that's not how I cope. I resent these good intentions. Then I resent myself for resenting them, because people are just trying to be nice.

In high school, I feared being a burden to people for so long that I hid how I felt. In college, I decided to try radical openness. (We all saw how that went.) Since then, I've been trying to navigate this minefield of truths: knowing that my pain is irrelevant and therefore a burden to others, but also knowing that it can give them comfort for their own to know that they're not alone.

I suppose that's why I write so much nonfiction; I am open about my experiences on paper in a way that's next to impossible in person. I encourage people to see their own life through my lens. Somehow, though, this places its own set of boundaries between us. It still makes it into you the reader and me the writer, and vice-versa. These inherent boundaries, whether through proximity, distance from a piece, the performance element of any art, allows me to be open without exposing myself. (My mom does call my writing 'exhibitionist,' though, and I suppose it is.)

After the college disaster of the ex best-friend-sorta-boyfriend, I became explicit with the boundaries of new relationships. Or, at least, I tried to be. When we decided to start dating, Gabe and I had a conversation about boundaries in no uncertain terms. I think that conversation set a huge tone for our relationship, and I'm so grateful I was in a space to have it.

But boundaries are hard, and it's so easy to slip back into old habits. For me, this is forgetting what those limits are. My psychiatrist tells me that when we're young, we're always romanticizing friendships and making them borderless. As we age, he says, friendship becomes about positive support. It's not that a friend won't be there during the bad times, but rather, there are more appropriate people to not burden. Like a partner. Like a doctor. Like parents.

This is a tricky train of thought. I always believed that friendships are meant to be through everything, for everything. There's some adage about a true friend being there for the bad times. Isn't that what friendship is supposed to be, forever?

He tells me that, as we get older, what we go to for our friends is different. Is that true? As we get older, we become more wrapped in our own lives and families, and they become our priorities. This is what I saw growing up: my parents didn't really have "friends." I vowed early on to not have that kind of relationship, to make sure I always had friends outside of my partner and family. But now, being closer to their side of the story, I understand their point of view. Gabe is my best friend and my partner in all things, and anything I would tell anyone else I would tell to him. I've also always believed that once you become a parent, your child is everything. It wouldn't seem unreasonable to me for someone to choose being there for their child over their friend.

Is that really fair, though? We are still ourselves even after we decide to marry or choose a life partner; we are still ourselves even after we have children. What are we telling our friends who choose not to "settle down" with somebody, or who decides against having children? Are our families, bound to us sometimes by law and sometimes by blood, really more important than the people we choose to love?

It seems to me that the shades of friendship that develop over time might be more complicated than what my therapist suggests, but, then again, I am dangerously young. I have only just begun experiencing healthy, adult friendships. I still don't quite know what they are. I'm still not sure where those boundaries are supposed to be.


This was originally a Tuesday Telegram. The Telegrams are a weekly essay from me, where I reflect on things going on in my life and the wide world around me. Previous topics have included the Adnan Syed case and criminal injustice, the gender binary, rape culture, and current events/politics.

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