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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Friends are God's way of apologizing to us for our families." --Tennessee Williams

This is another very long, drawn-out post exploring my inner psyche, past memories, and inane conclusions.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post in my "Running With Butterflies" blog. I discussed how I had tried for the past six or seven years to understand friendship, and how I had begun an experiment to see if I could experience viable ones. The experiment was a colossal failure. What I learned was that friendship continues to be something that causes me stress and that I don't feel safe or valued within those relationships. The more I learned and experienced, the more insecure I became.

And so I ended my research and experimentation. This does not mean I ended my friendships. It simply means that I decided to stop trying to understand and instead, just allow whatever may happen. In the process of this, I've noticed a number of things happened very quickly:

1. Within a couple of days I noticed my need for people decreasing. I spent much less time online and when I was online I didn't initiate chatting with anyone. I made no personal phone calls. I declined three lunch invitations on the basis that I was too busy. I skipped the monthly meeting with a music organization to which I belong because the meetings are largely social and I didn't feel like participating.

2. I no longer felt lonely. At all. I found myself absorbed in reading, practicing piano, working, watching sunrises and sunsets, and cleaning my house. My thoughts rarely turned to another person. It felt as though I was alone in the universe and that was the way it was supposed to be.

3. I felt at peace. For the first time in seven years it made no difference whether or not another person reached out to me and I had no desire to reach out to anyone, myself. I felt a great need for privacy and alone time. I felt secure and comfortable.

This does not mean that I cut myself off from people. I continued to converse online when friends hailed me. I spoke on the phone when people called me. I spent time with Darrin and my kids. I smiled at strangers when I was shopping. Still, what I do is not always in alignment with what I feel.

Shortly after this transition occurred, TB caught me online. He had been gone for a few days and opened our conversation by telling me he missed me. In the past when something similar has happened, I've felt a matching response. This time I just felt confused. It had only been about four days since we had last spoken. How could he possibly miss me?

Then I realized how my life had been affected by my Friendship Experiment. I had changed from someone who used social interaction on an "as needed" basis, to a person with real relationships. I no longer endured parties and lunches and phone calls, but I sought them out, enjoyed them, and felt regret when I had to leave. I had grown into a person who wished for and needed other people. There had been days in the past few years when I wanted desperately to talk to someone--and most often I could find someone who would listen to me. I was treated with dignity, warmth, and kindness, and sometimes I felt loved and important.

The Friendship Experiment began in October 2005, and I kept it active for more than seven years. And yet, when I ceased my quest to understand and immerse myself in friendships, I reverted to my former state, mentally and emotionally, within a matter of days.

My conversation with TB happened about a week ago. Since then I've been wondering what to do. There is no question that I'm most comfortable not pursuing relationships with people. In the days following my decision to stop my experiment I've felt a great deal of peace. My interaction with people has become less frequent and this has not brought me loneliness. I've felt less overwhelmed and stressed...

When I graduated from high school I was an exceptional pianist. I knew this. I had been granted acceptance with scholarships to three notable conservatories. I ended up going to none of them because I was a minor--and my mother chose the university which I ended up attending. At that point in my life I no longer cared about her micromanagement of my life. The goal was to become completely independent of her, and going to college--any college--would help me on my way.

At the university chosen by my mother, I was placed with a teacher who disliked me intensely. I had experienced this type of antipathy from a teacher only one other time in my life. The previous experience was with my seventh grade English teacher and I had that teacher for two periods every school day. I made few mistakes in that class, but when I did, my work was displayed in front of the class and publicly mocked by the teacher. Given the fact that I was still trying to survive the recent rape and ongoing abuse in my life and I had no sense of self on which to rely, the English teacher's mockery, snide comments, and demeaning acts simply served to send me deeply into depression. It was during this time that I stopped eating and tried with all the energy I possessed, to die.

My first university piano professor treated me in a similar fashion. During my private lessons he told me repeatedly that I had no talent, that I was stupid to try to pursue a degree in music, that I needed to change my major immediately. We had masterclass once weekly. In those classes, before all the students, he would point out that I was wasting everyone's time--I didn't play musically, I couldn't count, I made mistakes. His behavior mirrored that of my 7th grade English teacher and had a similar effect on me. I was depressed. My eating disorder returned with a vengeance. Eventually I stopped attending masterclass and by the end of the semester my teacher got his wish. I changed my major. I completed three more semesters and then I dropped out of school.

The ending of this particular story is that I eventually found people who supported and encouraged me to continue pursuing a piano performance degree. Some of that support came in the form of full-ride scholarships which allowed me financial stability while I studied, and I ended up not with one music degree, but three. However, I was left with a very special endowment from that first professor: severe performance anxiety.

Before I attended college, performance was a joy. I loved every moment of it. I rarely made mistakes because I lived and breathed every note. That joy was effectively sucked out of me by the end of my first year of college and replaced by uncontrollable shaking throughout my entire body each time I performed. I was terrified to play in public. This was a terrible handicap when I returned to my music major pursuit.

I spent two years finishing what I had begun. During those two years I contemplated changing my major each time I performed. Many of my performances were awful, fraught with mistakes, stuttering, and memory lapses. I remained a music performance major, however, because I remembered the joy I had felt in the past and I wanted desperately to feel that again. I worked ceaselessly to block the anxiety which caused the shaking and resulting poor performances. Eventually I began to find glimpses of that joy--enough to carry me forward, but there were definitely times when I wished to give up and become a fast food worker.

While I was working toward my degrees, I never did find the joy I was seeking. But years later I was performing a recital and the thought struck me: "I love this piece." It was then that I realized it was back--all of it--all the joy and abandon I had experienced so long ago, and it remains with me today. While the performance anxiety also remains, it no longer causes me pain nor does it interfere with my playing. I don't know when the change occurred but I'm very happy that it did.

I'm retelling this because when I gave up my dreams of majoring in music I felt a great deal of relief. I chose a different major (actually, a few different ones), which I enjoyed and I was comfortable pursuing it. I didn't feel a huge loss as I had expected, when I filled out the paperwork which took me out of the music department and I was completely committed to finding something else. There was peace in knowing I would have more time for homework now that I wasn't required to practice 20 hours weekly. In short, I felt completely happy with the change. I understand now that the relief and happiness I was experiencing was linked to being safe from an abusive teacher and to not having to face the stress of performance anxiety, and really had nothing to do with the degree program I was pursuing.

I think, maybe, there is something similar happening in the Friendship Experiment arena.

Friendship = Anxiety

Friendship causes me anxiety because, for it to work properly and with greatest effectiveness, one cannot control it. I have no say in how another person will feel or react. There is always a possibility of abandonment. I feel that I'm not particularly good at sharing my feelings with others, I'm almost always afraid, I feel a need for abundant reassurance and nurturing (which does not make me one bit happy), and I am always vulnerable.

However, this is not the only side of Friendship. If it were I would never have sought it in the first place. That would be stupid. So...

Friendship = Joy

I can't deny that some of my most joyful moments have taken place with other people, some of whom have chosen to be in my life because they want to be there. While I don't necessarily feel this way now, there have been moments when I have longed to be with another person. I have felt happiness in their presence. There have even been a few times when I felt completely relaxed with another person. It's rare that I feel completely relaxed--ever. To experience that because I was with someone who was safe, for me, is monumental.

Therapist has told me that it's okay if I wish to stay in my solitary comfort zone. He suggests, though, that I continue to seek out people and further believes that my peaceful time will eventually disintegrate. Probably he's right.

I suppose I'm wondering if one day, just as it coexists in my performance experiences, the anxiety I experience in friendship can also coexist with joy, and perhaps the joy will expand to the point that the anxiety no longer bothers me. I wonder if the peace I feel now is a result of relief from feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty. It's possible.

The difference between this particular experience and my piano conquest is that when I decided to immerse myself again in my music pursuit, it was all about and completely controlled by me. Friendship requires mutual commitment. I will definitely need to think about this a little longer before I decide anything.

Still, in the process of thinking during the past couple of weeks, I believe there are few things I've made peace with:

1. People who care don't really abandon one another, but they have to live real life. Regardless of how much I rebel against this, friendship is a secondary relationship. I understand my antagonistic feelings because there is a part of me that feels disregarded when relegated to the role of "friend." It feels I have no authentic importance, I am a convenience, and no matter how much I am loved I will always be an afterthought. I further understand that this belief is a result of the treatment I received within my family, but it is also something I reinforce on my own and that is something I can change. It will probably take more years, but I can change it.

2. All relationships require consistent nurturing and mutual trust. I believe I've done well in the nurturing department, but I must give myself an "F" in the trust department. When someone tells me I'm loved and needed, or I'm important, or I'm a joyful part of their life, I need to learn to trust their words. Should they prove they feel otherwise, this is not a reflection on me. Sometimes it's not even a reflection on the other person. Life happens. My hope is that if I'm important, I would be informed of things that might cause absence, but if that doesn't happen it's still no reflection on my willingness to trust and believe. Again, learning this trust thing might take more years and probably it will hurt a lot. I'm less confident about my ability to learn trust and sometimes I believe I just can't. Still, I'll work on it.

3. The one thing that helped me move forward after I had been thoroughly thrashed by my piano professor, was the memory of joy. I have an abundance of joyful memories within my relationships with other people. And I have complete control over those memories. They're mine. So no matter what the future brings in reference to the choices of my friends, I'm keeping those joyful memories and I'm going to use them to move forward.

Therapist is right--what I'm feeling now is probably temporary and one day soon I just might find myself sending a chat message to someone saying, "I've missed you..."

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