I’ve passed through some of these difficult rites of passage – broken marriage, empty nest, both parents dying, career stalling and, three years ago, after all that, I had a nervous breakdown on Christmas Day.
My breakdown taught me who my friends were. Or weren’t. I had some staunch allies, but despite myself, along with my mental list of those who stepped up, I can’t help keeping note of those who shrugged me off like a heavy coat on a hot day.
I know Christmas is enough to drive even the sanest of us crazy, but when you’re stressed, depressed, exhausted and playing happy families with your ex-husband, who is anxious to return to his newly pregnant girlfriend, there’s a big red bow on your parcel of despair.
In the space of two hours I went from the woman who put up the tree, bought the gifts, made two fruit cakes and an alpine village out of chocolate cake on Christmas Eve, to a shivering, weeping wreck.
I was doing what I always do – keeping busy, being in control. And then suddenly I wasn’t.
I already knew I was depressed. It’s a country I’ve visited a few times before, but the depression was the least of it. It was the unrelenting, stampeding anxiety that crippled me.
On December 31 – four doctors and a weekend of hell later – I walked into my local mental health facility and was admitted.
My closest friend visited me in hospital, and my boss turned up the day after I was admitted, something which I appreciated while still feeling humiliated to be seen in that state.
Too soon, I was discharged. I was afraid to leave. I told everyone I knew that I’d had a nervous breakdown. I felt like I was drowning in a sea of fear and reached out to anyone and everyone for a lifeline.
The wonderful friends who brought food, those who texted me every few days to see if I was OK, and listened to me cry – all helped my recovery by just reminding me that someone cared for me.
But they weren’t necessarily the people I’d hoped would rally round. It wasn’t those I had cooked and cared for when they had lost their partner, or who I had called when they were sick, or those whose neuroses I’ve listened to on speed dial for 20 years, while emoting like I was being paid by the hour.
Many of those who came to my rescue weren’t my ‘friends’ – they were acquaintances, such as the caring, sympathetic people in my choir who reached out.
One person to whom I’d offered huge support over the years barely spoke to me again after her trauma had passed, and basically ignored me when I was ill.
Another friend, for whom I went the extra mile when his wife was dying, sold his family home and moved away without bothering to tell me. I was devastated. Then there were the frenemies who vanish in your time of need, but reappear, full of faux concern and anxious to hear the gory details when you’re getting better.
But aren’t your adult friendships supposed to be stronger and based on mutual support? Even at 50, it seems, you can hold the umbrella for everyone else but still have fair-weather friends when you’re the one at the centre of the storm.
Sometimes, even if they do care, friends just can’t deal with our messy lives unravelling in front of their eyes. You may be striking a painful nerve.
After I separated from my husband my friends who also had dodgy, teetering marriages, didn’t want to see me – it was too ‘on point’ for them. So I can’t really be too hard on those who shunned me – but it is still sad.
What’s harder to forgive is the slight froideur, date cancellations, and that can’t-quite-put-your- finger-on-it lack of enthusiasm that signifies the waning of a previously firm friendship.
You’ve crossed a line, but you can’t see where it’s drawn. Suddenly you’re being cast as the faintly embarrassing loser, an annoying flea on the back of their own, much more glamorous life. Being dropped doesn’t kill you, but it does hurt. It’s excruciating to feel gauche when you’re grown up. It turns you back into that awkward teenager with no resources.
Except for the fact that now you do have resources, and the best one available to all of us is the delete button in the address book of our mobile phones.
In the end, it’s that easy. You don’t have to go to assembly or move your seat in class when you’re an adult. Just one push of the finger and you’re free.
Real friendship does need to tolerate change. Sometimes you have to forgive your friends if they don’t measure up to your needs. But you also have to know your limits. Don’t hang on to those people who let you down, who judge you, who suck the pleasure out of your life, and sting you as they smile to your face.
Since my breakdown, I’ve re-evaluated my friendships. There are also people I chose not to see any more and my life is none the poorer for it. Rather it’s a lot happier.
My true friends have put up with me this long, and I treasure them. The rest? Well, spring is an ideal time to clean out your friends.
Get all your friendships out of a drawer and chuck away the ones that don’t spark joy. The ones that don’t fit, the dull ones, the ones that make you look too fat, too thin, too dowdy.
Yes, keep the sparkly one that’s good for parties and the vivacious one who talks too much but always cheers you up, and the faithful one that is warm, cosy and goes with everything. But the ones that hurt? Declutter away.