Friendship and Recovery: Laura & Catherine
Catherine, one of my oldest friends, has come to visit me in Ocean City, New Jersey.
With glasses of pink lemonade in hand (the same kind we used to make and sell as little girls on hot summer days in the suburbs), we settle into the wicker furniture on the porch, which overlooks the tennis courts across the street. It is late afternoon. It’s a hot day, but there’s no humidity. A nice breeze moves down the street from the shore. Throughout our conversation, sounds of bright green balls ping back and forth between rackets. The pinging is mixed with the heavy breathing, grunts, and cheers as the players play their game.
Catherine and I have been friends for over 15 years. Her mother died when we were young. We were very close at the time. Honestly, I didn’t always know what to do or how to support her, but I tried my best. The death deeply affected Catherine. At the time I noticed her heightened emotions, but not having experienced such a loss, I could not comprehend what was happening. It changed her world completely and I felt sad and hopeless for my friend.
Still, as the years passed, we remained close. We experienced teen angst at the same time. We went on our first dates — Catherine much earlier than I. I remember talking with one another about our first kisses right after they happened.
We graduated high school and headed off to different liberal arts colleges. Catherine had a keen sense of what she wanted to study — psychology. I was uncertain, but loved literature and creating my own stories. We didn’t know what college would bring. I was both anxious and excited. But mostly, I was overwhelmed. I found myself crying in my car when running errands for bath towels and a shower caddy.
Our first year of college was intense. We both suffered from feelings of homesickness, depression and confusion. Not unusual for freshman.
Then, however, I experienced a large trauma while at school, a violence I could not understand and that I am still working to name. (I don’t mean to be vague but it takes time to be comfortable to share this story.) Catherine supported me through this time in the best ways she could, calling me constantly. She provided many distractions — We’d go on long drives, watch light-hearted movies, and take trips to the beach.
After school we moved to New York City together and together we dealt with the ebb and flow of the city and mental health struggles. Often times we’d distract ourselves from our anxieties and fears. We had a ton of fun together and many adventures in the city, walking through different neighborhoods. We’d walk the Highline early in the morning if we couldn’t sleep, or we’d take the subway to people watch, creating stories about our fellow travelers. We visited Time Square in the pouring rain. It was nice to know that we had one another’s support.
As we sit on the porch together I look to my dear friend. She looks happy and healthy, peaceful and present. We haven’t seen each other since I moved down to the shore for the summer to escape New York City.
“We both still live on Islands,” I say to Catherine, who is living, working and dating in Manhattan. Meanwhile I am writing, working in a small flower shop, and spending my days mostly alone on the beach. I decided to escape the city for a while because I hadn’t been feeling myself and hoped to spend the summer reflecting and working on myself — writing, running and spending time on the beach, moving at a slower pace.
We start to speak about our friendship . . .
Me, Laura: We started to be friends in —
Catherine: — second grade. I remember seeing you running around the classroom with your friend. At the time I recall feeling jealous, which is bizarre that that is my first memory of you.
Laura: I guess that may be because it was an extreme feeling — jealousy. It seems to be for me, the clearest memories I have are when I had a shift in perspective or experienced an extreme feeling that may have been traumatic. We remember those things more than the mundane.
Catherine: Growing up, for a while we weren’t super close but with time we became very close, especially in middle school when my mom died and towards the end of high school. After my mom died there was a long time I’d come over a few days after school and we had very concentrated time, the two of us, so we became close.
Outside tired families begin to make the journey home from the beach. I notice a father struggling with two beach chairs and a beach bag. His young children run ahead dragging their boogie boards. “WEEEEEEEE,” the little girl cries out, a smile spreading across her face and then suddenly she stops, “Daddy, I’m tired. Can you carry my boogie board?”
Catherine: When you are a child everything feels so intensely emotional and certain experiences feel like the end of the world. I think mostly because it’s all so new. I think a lot of it has to do with time because you haven’t been alive that long. Like now if I have a bad day I’m like “Oh it’s just one day. Tomorrow will be different.”
Laura: I almost feel the opposite, and that may be because I’m a rather anxious person. But when I waste a day or have a dark day I become anxious, because everyday I have less time. I feel a certain urgency . . .
Catherine: I guess for me on those dark days I recognize that I’ve had a lot of good days and I trust that I will again. The bad days make the good days better. Something that my dad had said to me as a child was that when you become an adult you level out, emotionally. In that you don’t feel as intense dark lows but you also don’t experience the exciting highs. And that scared me because I didn’t want to lose the extremes.
Laura: Do you find that that’s true for you — that emotional experiences have leveled out with age?
Catherine: I think in some ways yes. I still experience intense emotions but they come up less frequently and I’m better at assessing them and working through them.
Laura: I find that I’ve become better at expressing to others what I’m experiencing than I was capable of as a child or in high school. I had trouble being open and honest about my emotions in high school out of fear. I find with time learning to be honest has made it easier to work through the extreme emotions. I’m more practical about working through issues or distress than I was in high school.
The sound of an airplane suddenly interrupts our conversation as it passes closely above. We pause our conversation, but the rest of the world around us continues to move: bikers, beachers, and the tennis players.
Laura: What do you do to help with the ups and downs?
Catherine: For a long time I tried to pinpoint why I was feeling what I was for each thing I felt.
Laura: I do remember that. That sounds exhausting.
Catherine: It was. I wanted to understand and work through it right away.
Laura: I’m a lot different because I find it takes me a lot of time to process things.
Catherine: Now I am better at giving things time, not needing to work through everything right away.
Laura: It’s important to have the attitude tomorrow is a new day, a new feeling, especially when a feeling you may be experiencing feels urgent or important to address. We have to bow to our experiences but we have to be able to do so with some perspective.
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Catherine: Exactly. I still do try to understand what I am feeling and why but it’s not the same urgency to always work through it right away. It’s important to experience all different types of emotions.
There are many similar themes as we each talk about our journeys, although our stories are very different. Catherine began dealing with mental health challenges at a much earlier age than I did. Shortly after her mother died she was diagnosed with depression. Dealing with the death of someone so close, such as a parent, at such a young age can change the way one sees the world. When I was in Middle School I didn’t truly understand what it meant to be “depressed.” It was something I could not relate to or imagine. It was difficult for me to see my friend struggling in ways I could not understand.
Catherine: After my mom had died in 7th or 8th grade I felt very depressed — though I didn’t have the vocabulary at the time to express it — I just felt really sad and hopeless most of the time and didn’t have an explanation for it or know why I was feeling that way. I felt like there was no solution for it.
Laura: I remember not knowing how to support you during that time. Especially after your mom died. At the funeral when you saw me, you started to cry and I felt so bad and didn’t know what I should do.
Catherine: I don’t think anyone knows what to do. We all just try our best to support one another in moments of loss but no one truly knows what to do.
Laura: And everyone deals with grief differently.
Catherine: Exactly, at the time it felt like even the adults around me didn’t know what to do or say.
Laura: How do you view the loss now?
Catherine: I think for a long time it was something I wanted to work through completely, but I’ve learned now that it is something I’m constantly going to have to check in with and address the new emotions that come up as I grow and change and continue to not have my mother. Graduating from college brought up a lot of new feelings surrounding this loss for example. It’s difficult to cultivate the space to be constantly working through this loss. But I know it is something I will have to do.
Laura: I feel similarly. There are many experiences I just want to be done with, but so often with losses or trauma it’s something you have to constantly work through.
Catherine: I went through phases in which I tried to work through these things on my own. I didn’t’ want romantic relationships, and I pushed away from people and tried to be a completely independent person. I thought this was the way to work through my issues. Now I realize it is not a feasible way to deal with things. As a human being, you need other human beings to support you. And you need emotional support. I’ve gone through extremes where I feel I rely on people too much or need to form relationships. It’s difficult to know what is the best way. What do you think?
Laura: It’s certainly a delicate balance. I think that a big part of working through issues does come back to communication and the support that we have as individuals. I think the way I view romantic relationships is very different than yours and because I’ve always had an extremely close relationship to my parents I haven’t felt the need to cultivate that unconditional love in perhaps the way you felt the need to. I’m not any more independent than you, but rather the way we make attachments to others is different. Living alone at the shore I’m learning more how important my connections to others are. I think being alone at the shore will help me to better my relationships in the future because for a while I wasn’t enjoying spending time with others in New York and was feeling quite depressed. I think what it comes down to is communicating honestly with others, which hasn’t always been easy for me.
Catherine: I see.
Laura: Relationships can be a challenge and finding the proper support and space to function healthfully is a constant balance and discussion.
Catherine: For me, in the past I’ve wanted to work through things right away with people.
Laura: I’m the opposite of that, I need a lot space to process things.
Catherine: Which is probably why we’ve had a good balance together, though at times it’s been difficult for us.
Laura: Totally. We are very different. At times it can be tricky to find the best ways to communicate but I think we’ve grown to find ways that work for us.
Catherine: I have such intense feelings around people and for people. For whatever reason, whenever you are in emotional turmoil I feel this very strong need to fix it, which isn’t always healthy and is not my responsibility. I feel this way about you more than any other friend and I don’t know why but I feel like I need to help you if you are struggling.
Laura: It’s not something you are capable of fixing. It shouldn’t be your responsibility.
Catherine: I know but I feel that way at times. I think the first time I experienced this very strongly was the night you called me during our first year of college because you were in the hospital and something violent had happened to you. I felt a need to go to you and help you in any way I could through that experience.
Laura: I remember one conversation we had later that month and you felt so angry about it in ways I couldn’t even fully understand. I felt so bad because I felt I caused that feeling in a way and didn’t now know what to do. I felt extreme guilt. I’ve had this same experience since that trauma as well. When I was hospitalized in the fall of our senior year of college I had a similar feeling. I felt as though both of these experiences were so extreme for me and I was going through a lot but I also had to acknowledge that I affected those around me, including you. It made me very fearful to share things, especially with those close to me because I thought I had this capability of hurting them, even though I didn’t have control in most of these situations of what happened to me. Often times in these traumatic situations I’ve been very confused about what had happened, in a very victim shaming and blaming kind of way, and with others reacting extremely around me it has been hard to see clearly at times. In senior year, when I wasn’t sleeping, felt constantly triggered, and started acting manic, I wasn’t treating the people around me fairly. I found it hard to understand the ways I was affecting people around me. Often times, after a traumatic experience I feel depressed and confused about the experience. Things seem to blur together for me at times and I don’t always know how to talk to people about these things with the people around me until I’ve had a lot of time and space. I don’t know if that’s always been fair to you as a friend but you’ve always done your best to support me.
Catherine: It’s true that we deal with issues differently but something so important to me was when we were living together and would commute to school together and unpack things that happened on the N train each night on our way home.
Laura: Of course, that support was so important to me.
Catherine: We’ve certainly been through a lot of together.
I feel very peaceful as we sit quietly. The streets have mostly quieted around us as well. Beachers have returned home for dinner and outdoor showers before hitting the boardwalk. The tennis games have mostly wrapped up (with the exception of an older couple who seem very involved in their back and forth). I look to my friend and think of what is to come for each of us. We both have travel plans for the upcoming year and hope to make new discoveries about ourselves. I hope for Catherine that she continues to learn and grow. I hope the same will be true of our friendship, that it will continue and shift as our lives take us to new places.
As we wrap up our conversation we decide to walk down to the bay to see the sunset, watching the blue sky fade to a warm pink. This is in no way the end, it’s just an end of our day together. We both recognize that being a person, being a friend, is constant work. And though we are uncertain of the next time we may see each other, we are sure that we will always be there, in some way, for one another.