Friday, 26 August 2016

Friends aren't like "Friends"

Yesterday one of the twitter people I follow made me cry.

I'd seen in previous days that somebody I didn't know, Graeme Mathieson, had died.  This had deeply affected people, and in particular Philip Roberts, @philip_roberts. Philip tweeted out a memorial post. I followed the link to It has trigger warnings about suicide and depression.  But it's an excellent read and I recommend it (it made me cry, I mean that's praise). Feel free to read it now.  It's also fine to stay here and read how it affected me - so I won't do that thing of saying "read it now, it's ok, I'll wait" because it's cute the the first time you see it but it gets old fast.

The part that really hit me was this:
Not long after that I saw this tweet from Graeme in my timeline.
This morning’s art class turned into a mind map of “depression: a personal perspective”:
— Graeme Mathieson (@mathie) February 6, 2014
One phrase stood out: "no friends".
This was a phrase I was saying to my therapist almost every week at that time.
This was a phrase that I would never have applied to Graeme.
And so, I guess, our true friendship began

There was something about "Can we be friends please?", something about the loneliness and pain on both sides, and of course with no happy ending since Graham is no longer with us. 

But I'm not here to share my tears, but to say something about friends. 

There's so much we don't get educated well about, or at least I wasn't. For example one of them is the joy of running. I love running and for several years it's been a serious hobby and one I love. But at my school it was basically a cross between a punishment and the PE teachers not having an idea what to do if it was raining and the playing fields were too wet. "Go for a run to the Ketch and back", which was a perhaps 5-6 km run, or in fact in this case a short jog followed by long slow walk (almost by definition in the rain) and being teased by the people who could actually run a 5km as they passed on their return trips - the good runners being those who by good luck were good at it instead of all of us taught to run well even if slowly by a PE staff who should have been instilling love of physical activity. Nowadays I love long runs (a 5km run is a short one for me, I prefer longer ones), so somehow this strikes me as one of the most glorious failures any teacher could achieve: making their students hate something that it turns out they can actually love when out of the clutches of the teacher.

Wow that came out a bit rantier than I expected. 

Anyway another thing I didn't get well educated about is friends. I mean, this one is much more understandable for a school to fail in, because nobody is educated about friends.

I don't think of myself as somebody who has no friends. As a teenager I might have written down "no friends", but not for some years. 

But that doesn't mean I understood friendship. Of course I don't now either but I understand it a bit better.  Without doubt being an open and out depressed academic has helped me understand friends a bit better. Maybe a lot better. 

The thing is that friends (in real life) aren't like "Friends" (in the tv show). And I don't just mean in the sense that in real life you don't inevitably have to end up sleeping with somebody you've been friends with for the last 10 years in an implausibly good apartment in New York. 

I mean that friends aren't all the same and you don't have to have the same friends for all things and interact with them all in the same way. Somehow I picture the simplistic world view that culture - like "Friends" - gives us as being that a friend can be somebody who helps you out of trouble, but the same person has to be a good drinking buddy, enjoy movies with you, the sports you like, and especially be a party animal just like you. It's just about OK to have a friend group of mixed gender, but then they have to split up into groups of men who like the same sports and women who like the same clothes shops. 

Life isn't like that.

And friends can be very very different. 

I have friends who I have never met. Because we are friends on facebook for example, perhaps because of a shared interest. And somehow you start to get a connection. If I was culling my facebook friend list some of these would be the last to go.

I have friends I have met but only after becoming friends. 

I've got friends I met only before coming friends, and hardly or not at all thereafter. 

I have lots of friends from depressed academics, or who just know about my mental health generally. And maybe who reach out to me, or come into my office and close the door and say "me too". 

And when I'm talking about these people, some of them are not just friends but some of my most inspirational friends whose example I try to live up to. 

I don't have a lot of drinking buddy friends because I don't go drinking a lot. I do have sports friends, where we have a shared interest (usually cricket). 

I have a lot of work friends where we share a love and interest in some intellectual pursuit. 

I have friends who have different roles in different parts of my life. Maybe we have one kind of friendship on facebook and another at work.

I have - tragically - lost good friends to (a felicitous phrase) "terminal mental illness". But they were still good friends. And I've made good friends because of our shared loss of somebody to mental illness.

And often the people who reach out to you when you need it you don't think of as your friends. But they reach out to you and you realise they are and they are very good friends. 

And the people who don't reach out to you when you need it? They can still be good friends. Maybe not the reaching-out kind of friend, but still a good friend for many other aspects of friendship. 

I thought this post was going somewhere but it's got lost - my point is that yes, I am desperately sad for Graeme and Philip in thinking they have no friends. And I want to pass on such huge kudos to Philip for reaching out to Graham in that way.

Because I still don't know how to make friends. But I realise more and more that it's easier than you think. Because I have
 never thought of myself as somebody with lots of friends. But I was wrong. 

I have lots of friends.

If you want to donate in Graham Mathieson's memory go to this fundraising page for 
Mind: The Mental Health Charity