with a little help from my friends

I recently came across an essay in which author Ann Patchett beautifully sums up the crux of what I hope will emerge in the final months of this search. “[Here’s] my idea of real intimacy,” she writes. “It’s not the person who calls to say, ‘I’m having an affair’; it’s the friend who calls to say, ‘Why do I have four jars of pickles in my refrigerator?'”. I want someone with whom I can talk about the deep stuff – hopes and dreams and expectations and disappointments – and also the minutiae. Sometimes it takes talking about everything to get to the place where we can talk about nothing.

– Rachel Bertsche, MWF Seeking BFF.

The above quote comes from the book I’m reading at the minute (well, yes, one of the books I’m reading). The author, having found herself living in Chicago with a lovely husband and a good job, feels like something is missing from her days. She realises that the absence she’s feeling is that of her two best friends, both of whom are still living in New York. So she sets herself a mission: make one date with one new potential friend a week, from people in her cookery class, to readers of her blog, to the partners and friends of those already in her social circle.

I have to admit that a huge part of my reaction to this project is the same one I’d have to someone announcing that they were about to take up tightrope walking above alligator-strewn rivers. Very nice, I’m sure, if you’re into it, but I’d rather chew off my own right arm. Forced socialising is something I deal with as occasionally as possible, with a finish line always in mind and a get-out-free card in my pocket. Textbook introvert, in other words.

At one point, Bertsche interviews John Cacioppo, a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, and author of Loneliness (a book with a rather self-explanatory title). The Professor points out that while loneliness and depression are often seen as co-existing states, they are emotions which exert opposite forces on our social behaviour. Loneliness makes us pro-active – it is a force like hunger or tiredness, which alerts us to something necessary but missing. Depression makes us apathetic; we are aware that something is wrong, but we lack the energy and the mental space to fix the problem.

That last paragraph hits me uncomfortably close to home. Currently, I live in my hometown, with my parents. I lived in Dublin for five years, and Dublin is still where almost all my Irish friends are located. Many of us from this area flew the coop as quickly as we could: this is not a town with bountiful recreation or employment possibilities. I wouldn’t be back here if it wasn’t for the need to work on my mental health. My family are grand, but it’s not hard to come to the conclusion that I am now not only depressed – I am also lonely.

That feels odd to admit. I am perfectly comfortable discussing mental illness, trading stories of ‘once I was so agoraphobic I…’, and empathising with others with similar problems. Admitting to loneliness feels like a different kettle of fish. Perhaps it comes from the distinction we draw between illness, which hits us whether we want it to or not, and emotion, which feels like something we should be able to control.

John Cacioppo says “people who get stuck in loneliness have not done anything wrong. None of us is immune to feelings of isolation, any more than we are immune to feelings of hunger or physical pain.” And he’s the expert, after all. But there’s still a lurking feeling of being the last kid left while picking teams when one finds oneself checking Facebook and wondering if everyone else is out having fun.

That’s the problem, of course, with having online or long-distance friendships – while there’s no trouble narrowing the emotional distance between yourself and the people you encounter, the geographical distance is an uncompromising barrier. It’s a fun train of thought, when I ponder that I could go from New Zealand to New Mexico, up to Toronto and back to Tampere, and never run out of a place to stay or a local to show me the sights. Sadly, that’s not much good on a Saturday night when I’d quite like someone to help me with a tub of ice-cream and a stack of stand-up DVDs.

The rising mobility of young Irish people is also a factor, especially in the years since the economic downturn. My boyfriend lives over an hour away. My best friend is studying in Edinburgh, and our other close friend is writing software in San Francisco. My boyfriend’s friends, in turn, are looking at Australia, Canada, different parts of the US. Suddenly, not only are we looking at one part of our social circle having an international flavour, but the until-recently stable, home-based half is flying the coop as well.

To compound it, I’m also dropping in and out of a tentative attempt at a social life as the depressive and/or anxious episodes come and go. There’s the rub, then: loneliness may spur you to try to reconnect with society, but mental illness slows you down and tells you not to bother. Loneliness makes you step out of your comfort zone; mental illness calls you a fool for ever trying.

So the internet works, in that sense. Without having to leave the safety of my room, I can exchange quips about our favourite band with Sara in Toronto, read a poem by Delilah in London, and wish Claire in Auckland good luck on her holidays. It doesn’t matter if I’m having a bad brain day, if Kirsty wants someone with whom to marvel at the attractiveness of Cillian Murphy or Lizzie is excited about her upcoming PhD course, I can take part in the conversations at my own speed or, let’s face it, cognitive level of the given moment. The internet is a wonderful breeding ground for those four-jars-of-pickles friendships, as well as the more in-depth ones. It gives us a chance at intimacy with people that otherwise, we would never have met.

I just wish the internet could also pop around for a cup of tea.

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