What a fucking year it’s been.
My whole life has changed since my last post. J and I got engaged. I dumped my psychiatrist for a psychiatric NP, and I stopped feeling suicidal for the first time in two years. While there’s almost an end in sight to my PhD, I’ve become the only person in my cohort left to defend her dissertation. And most recently, an old friend died.
I could never do M justice with a description. He was the most liked person I have ever known. Unlike many of the “popular” kids in school who simply played the right sports or looked the right way or knew the right people, M was popular because everyone genuinely liked him. He was funny and kind, and he was the same friend to everyone regardless of social standing (which I say as not the nerdiest nerd in all the land, but definitely not a cool kid).
I’ll just get this out of the way now: Yes, I used to have a crush on him. Show me a girl who didn’t have a crush on him back then, and I’ll show you a damn liar. I’m seventeen years post-crush, though, so I think you can take me at my word.
My favorite thing about M was that he taught me not to be ashamed to take up space. Coincidentally, I had already written 90% of a post about taking up space with your mental health when M went into hospice care. Now it feels more appropriate to talk about how he taught me this lesson and how I regret that I haven’t learned it better. Stay tuned for a mental health lesson in a couple weeks (or another year, who knows).
Heads up: more swearing, less sarcasm and organization than usual. I’ve been in a fog. Give me a break.
Lesson 5: Take up space, part 1.
As a woman and as someone prone to depression and anxiety, I often try to be as invisible as possible. If I physically take up space, people might notice that I have a body and find something to hate about it. If I let my words take up space, people might call me bitchy or hysterical. If I dare let my mental illness take up space, people might think I am weak or that I’m trying to get attention for being miserable. It always feels safer to go unnoticed.
M was a friend who made me feel seen at so many pivotal points in my life when I thought I just wanted to be invisible. He was the only other witness to the first time I was ever sexually harassed – at recess in the beginning of sixth grade. As eleven-year-olds, we didn’t know what to make of the situation, but the eye contact and awkward smile reassured me “Yes, this did actually happen.” I still think of that kernel of acknowledgement any time I wonder whether it’s worth calling out behavior that makes me uncomfortable. And you know what? It’s always worth it because I always deserve respect from the people around me.
When I started opening up about my stalker, M revealed that he had been paying attention from a distance. (Meanwhile, many people at a closer distance didn’t notice, thought having a stalker was funny, or tried to feel me up during National Treasure at the movie theater. I will never stop making fun of the guy who groped me during National Fucking Treasure.) While most other people’s responses to my saga were laced with blame (“Why didn’t you tell anyone?” “Why didn’t you do anything sooner?” “Are you sure you’re not a lesbian?”), M listened without an ounce of judgment and said all that I really needed to hear: “Wow, that’s really fucked up.” All I wanted was for someone to say “I hear you, and you were too young to go through that horrible thing that you went through.” M’s nonjudgmental response showed me that it wasn’t worth the mental energy to try to hide what I had been through because it was not my fault. Now, when I want to curl up into a ball, I try to remind myself that I don’t deserve any judgment that people might send my way just because I have certain thoughts or feelings.
Throughout high school, M and I talked about things that most of our other friends were too polite to talk about. We discussed family, dating, God (or not-God), mental health, and whatever was keeping us up so damn late at night. I learned that just because people weren’t talking about something didn’t mean that they weren’t thinking about it. I wasn’t alone. I probably had something in common with every single person around me. So why try to keep everything hidden?
M was one of the few people who helped me stay alive through high school. And I mean that literally and 100% seriously.
M encouraged me to take up space by recognizing the space that I already took up. He made me realize that my experiences and emotions were valid and that I had no reason to be ashamed of them. But I had mixed results in applying what he taught me to my own life.
Case in point: Our friendship was almost exclusively an online friendship.
M never implied that we couldn’t be friends in person, but I assumed that we had to be relatively secretive about our friendship because he was Popular and I was Not. (Yes, I’m sure that the number of teen rom-coms that I watched had something to do with this.) M would have welcomed my friendship. Most of his friends probably would have done the same or, at the very worst, said “Who?” Yet, I was too afraid of rejection and embarrassment from them. I made myself invisible before anyone else could try to make me invisible.
This fear of rejection caused me to fall out of touch with M after we graduated from high school. Every time I considered sending him a message, my irrational self-consciousness kept me from reaching out. I was acutely aware of how absurd it was, but I still couldn’t type a simple “Hey” and hit Enter. In 2015, while trying to talk myself into reaching out for the hundredth time, I wrote in my journal “My life could have been extremely different had I not been afraid of what other people thought.” Yet, I was never able to take the plunge – until I found out that he was sick.
I wish I had been willing to take up enough space to dare to be his friend in person while I had the time.
I know that there’s nothing I can do now. And I know that, all things considered, the last few months of our friendship turned out as well as they probably could have. M and I got to reconnect. I even got to say goodbye. But now I see everyone’s tributes on Facebook accompanied by glowingly happy photos, and I’m kicking myself for not having anything I can look back on to remind myself that our friendship wasn’t just in my head. I have to hold onto every bit of laughter and every LYLAS and pretend that it’s good enough because that’s all I have and all I will ever have.
This was one of the most painful lessons I’ve had to learn in my life. I will never again let the fear of rejection or embarrassment or judgment get in the way of relationships that are important to me.
M was one of the best people I have ever known. I was proud that he thought of me as a friend. He wasn’t a part of my everyday life, but I will miss him always.