Friendship, Failure, and the Future

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There are days with Jerri when a ray of true self breaks through the dark, seemingly impenetrable clouds and I get to experience what many other sisters have with their siblings. Yesterday was one of those days. I was making the six hour round trip to pick up Ramsey from my sister-in-law, our dog-sitter while we were in Ecuador. On the way, I called to check in with Jerri and she returned my call as I was on the way back home.

She sounded good, like herself, very much in her right mind. We spoke about friendship, failure, and the future. We talked for over two hours. It’s the friendship discussion that’s bouncing around my head at the moment.

Jerri had two good friends before moving to Durham. One, Ellen, was a friend from high-school and the other, Susan, was once her sponsor at Narcotics Anonymous (NA). Both were dual diagnosis like Jerri. The three of them had a falling out several months before Jerri moved. The story is not that clear but it involved drugs and Ellen, still active in NA, blamed Jerri for her relapse. Susan believed Ellen and was so upset, she ended her friendship with Jerri.

The simultaneous loss of both Susan and Ellen was devastating. Jerri maintains her own innocence but says Susan wouldn’t even listen to her side. She is still very hurt by it. I miss Susan as well. She was extremely helpful to me when Jerri and I first reconnected. She was the one who put me in touch with volunteers at NAMI NC – people who explained the mental health system in Durham and gave me sound advice on handling crises when Jerri first moved. Susan was also a great role model. She’d been clean for over 5 years, had a job, and a family. I still have her number in my cell contact list although I haven’t called her since the break-up. I wonder if there is any possibility for reconciliation. While time does not always heal all wounds, sometimes it does change perspectives.

Jerri misses having true friends. She hangs out with her neighbor, Catherine, who is schizophrenic and not well. Even Jerri, who you’d think would know better, has difficulty separating Catherine from her illness and takes it personally when Catherine acts unpredictably.

True friends are hard to come by even when brain disorders are not a factor. After I moved to Durham, it took me about six years to find true friends and I think how much harder it will be for Jerri. She will have to put herself into uncomfortable social situations and then of course, there’s the stigma. Brain disorders are not something you can hide and most people shy away. Even those who have experience with mental illness and are more accepting can be reluctant to strike up a friendship. Mood disorders affect relationships more than illnesses like diabetes, for example. Jerri, herself, sees how difficult it is to be in a friendship with Catherine, but she doesn’t apply this same truth to herself.

“Normal people recognize that something is off with me much quicker than people with mental illness,” Jerri confided yet she longs for “normal” friends. Interacting with so-called normal people, however, is anxiety-provoking. Her internal scanner is on constant alert. She senses when others have detected her “offness” and then she no longer wants to be around them. Better to be alone than to be singled out as different or worse, ridiculed for it.

This internal scanner is something we share. I think it’s a survival mechanism we developed because honest communication was practically non-existent in our childhood. To avoid emotional minefields, you had to become a master at reading body-language, facial expressions, and tone of voice. Upon entering a room full of strangers, I can discern in an instant who is predisposed to liking me and who is not. The difference between me and Jerri, however, is I’m okay with people not liking me. It’s inevitable, right? I don’t like everyone I meet, often for a myriad of reasons I can’t even put a finger on. Why should I expect others to be any different?

I’m not saying that it doesn’t bother me to be disliked. It’s just that it doesn’t matter. The dislikers don’t really know who I am. I know me better than anyone and I like me. I work hard to be someone that I can like, someone who tries to do the right thing even at significant personal cost. Sometimes I fail. Many times I fail. I forgive myself. I know in my heart I can do better. I get up and try again. I acknowledge the things about myself I don’t like. I work on changing them. Those things do not define me. It is never to late to be the person I might have been.

I wish I could transmit this way of thinking to Jerri. She admitted she doesn’t like herself. She has often chosen what is easy over what is right and she hates herself for it. She has deep regrets over failures to her children. She doesn’t know how to forgive herself. She discounts the impact mental illness has had on her ability to make sound decisions. It seems to me that before she can make friends with others, she must first make friends with herself.

We talked about ways to meet friend-worthy people like church small groups, volunteering, or bipolar support groups. Jerri conceded that if the people in the support group were actually recovering and living more normally than the mentally ill people in her housing complex, she might meet friends there. I told her about a coworker’s husband who is bipolar, stable, and working as an office manager for a medical practice. “I’ve never met anyone like that,” she said.

As we talked, my heart ached a little. There are so many things I want for her, so many things she must choose for herself. I imagine this is how God must feel about all of us.

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3 Comments on “Friendship, Failure, and the Future”

  1. cathyalford says:

    I like you and always have. 🙂

    • I know – my internal scanner flagged you as a “liker” the first time we met. 🙂 I will always count you as one of my true friends.

      • Cathy Alford says:

        That made me smile. 🙂 I still remember the first time we had a conversation on a flight going somewhere and we quickly found our common belief system. 🙂


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