You don’t belong on the ground.
I fancied myself Anne of Green Gables as a young girl. Anne’s love for language, vivid imagination, and obvious tension between wanting to belong and wanting to be true to herself encapsulated much of my inner world—the world most real to me.
Around the age of eight, a friend—we’ll call her Erin—and I pretended to be Anne as she accepted a dare to traverse the roofline. We walked the fence railing in Erin’s country backyard, alternating between laughter and intense focus as our arms outstretched for balance beneath a clear February sky.
Suddenly, I fell. The memories flash, ephemeral. I recall Erin standing over me as I lay on the dry Texas grass. I remember sitting in a kitchen chair while my arm trembled and Erin’s mother called mine. The next memory I can unearth depicts my arm in a cast, my mom decorating the bland white plaster with lavender and pale yellow polka dots formed by a pencil eraser.
Seven years later, as Erin and I tumbled out of a Suburban on our way to a homecoming dance, she confessed that I didn’t fall. She pushed me.
I’ve always felt rather off in friendships. That fence walking memory captures my overall experience eerily well: I’m trying to have fun. I think I’m doing it right. I think everyone is having fun here? Maybe I do know how to be a friend, even though everything in me says I don’t.
. . . Why am I on the ground now?
I shared with my counselor recently that I believe myself to be a failure at friendships. I walked her through a cycle of relational discord that starts at the age of thirteen, though I suppose I could back it up to eight if the fence story means what I often believe it to mean. Even in a memory where someone actively hurt me, I narrate the story as one where I’m the antagonist.
She probably had a reason to push me, I tell myself. She probably knew I’m not cut out for friendship, so she decided to shove me out of the way, hurt me before I could hurt her.
That cycle I mentioned, the one that starts at thirteen, I’ve often let it warp me into the very villain I loathe becoming. If I sense the slightest bit of disagreement with a friend, I face a lose-lose temptation: either slip away, or hash out the discord to the very last detail in a frenzied effort to “get on the same page.”
Taking a break from conversation, as well as doing hard, long work to make peace, can both be beneficial to a friendship. But when I operate from insecurity, I wield both retreat and assertiveness as unhelpful extremes. Rather than tools for rebuilding relationships, they become weapons pointed back at myself, threatening to wound me if I don’t find a way to live up to some self-imposed, arbitrary standard of what it means to be worthy of friendship.
Five years after the fence fall, I sat with “Maggie” as she cried on her bed at a sleepover. The other teen girls all hugged Maggie immediately, scooting close to sit with their arms around her shoulders or hands on her back. Eventually, I retreated to the floor, implying that I was creating space for the girls who wanted to huddle on the bed. In truth, I had no idea what to do with myself, and I longed to pull away.
Why don’t I know how to comfort? I thought to myself as I watched my friends like they were a movie scene rather than actual human beings. What is wrong with me? And why, every time that I feel like I’m having fun with others, do I find myself down here, on the ground?
I wish I could go back and tell Young Abby that her way of existing in the world didn’t render her an inherent threat to friendships. I want her to know that much of the confusion she experienced in female friendships had to do with southern evangelical social conditioning, and the simple fact that, in Myers-Briggs terms, almost every girl she knew (and would know in the future) was a Feeler while she was a Thinker.
I wish I could convince Young Abby that she didn’t belong on the ground. I want to tell her that different doesn’t equal bad, and that she can both grow in kindness and emotional expression and offer her thoughtful insight and ever-unlike-the-others perspective as a true gift in friendships.
Older Abby still needs to hear all that, so now I tell her, in journal pages, in prayers, and in this column. Close friends catch me slipping away or ravenously seeking their approval, and remind me that I don’t have to do either one. My husband tells me I’m a joy to be around, and I let him believe his words for me until one of these days, the truth he speaks sinks into me. I want it to, and for someone who has long fancied herself as belonging on the ground, that feels like beginning to stand.