Not too long ago, I wrote a post about the importance of having girlfriends and what it meant to me. As I read over it, I started to think that my guy friends deserved to be honored as well.
I didn’t start investing in those kinds of friendships until seventh or eighth grade. Part of it was by natural inclination, and the other part was because I was wary of being around girls too much. I was picked on and bullied for a majority of those two years, and I needed to be able to get away from the cattiness and gossip. As a teenager, I carried a lot of insecurities, particularly when it came to having a handicap. When I was with them, I felt genuinely accepted and cared for, which carried over into high school as well.
As I've gotten older, I've come to appreciate them for more than just being confidants. There were those that I met in my first year of college that frequently took me out on the town, because they saw where I was coming from in terms of wanting to just let loose and be a regular college kid. I liked that they weren’t overly worried about my physical safety and trusted me enough to speak up for myself if I needed anything. They would regularly ask if I was OK, and in turn I was able to take responsibility for myself and the choices I made
But as a whole, I’m grateful for how they treat me as a person; I feel more normal when I'm around them than any other time. It is very rare that we ever touch on the fact that I have cerebral palsy, regardless of who they are or how long I have known them for. Some have asked out curiosity, and that is why I have tremendous respect for those that are willing to openly discuss the matter instead of make assumptions.
And whether anyone asks or not, I’ve realized that it’s probably not a big deal to them, nor does it define me. I'm still "Al" or any one of the dozen nicknames I've been given (one of them was from a car commercial, and another was because I constantly wore a pink fuzzy Northface jacket around campus). There are those that have an amazing sense of humor and we often spend time joking around about stuff. And despite that I sometimes appear to take it seriously, it's only because I'm not sure how to respond with something as equally funny. Half of the time I just sit there and laugh until I can't breathe.
It’s nice to do different things with different people, and creates a healthy balance. I think everybody needs to have friends who can challenge their perspective and motivate them to be the best person that they can be. Not too many of mine know it, but a lot of them have been positive influences and strong examples since the day I met them. My instincts told me that there was something about them that was special.
Having those people in my life has taught me a lot and in turn enabled me to be a better person. I have so much respect for them, and can only hope that if I haven't done it already, I will one day be able to do for them what they have done for me.
Update: It’s crazy to think how much has happened in the last four years. I was only nineteen when I wrote this, and was actually struggling with keeping friendships for a little while. I was meeting new people all the time, but it was more of a matter of finding those that I genuinely meshed with after the sense of “newness” and excitement of being in college wore off. I was still in the process of trying to figure out who I was and where I fit, along with feeling confident that not knowing was perfectly OK. It takes a lot of time and courage to truly get to know someone, a lot of which I didn’t think I had because I’d been burned in the past.
That fear intensified after my first brush with sexual assault (one of several that I dealt with several times afterward). I’d become well aware that most people (especially young women), were either perceived as good or bad based on what they did, more so when it came to their bodies. Our culture is borderline obsessed with victim-blaming instead of focusing on the attacker, and I was already dealing with enough judgment and shame from not having taken the right precautions to get away. I didn’t want to run the risk of changing anybody’s opinion of me when I wasn’t ready to talk about it.
Of course, there was always the question of why bring anything up when they don’t need to know? Sure, they didn’t need to know about my parents’ imminent divorce or how the events leading up to it affected me. They didn’t need to know that I struggle with depression or that I’d been in and out of therapy for years. Yet not talking about it started to feel weird after a while. When it came to my closest guy friends, I spent more energy trying to avoid those subjects, which created a huge barrier between us. I’m not sure if they sensed anything, but I don’t like depending on people as emotional crutches when trying to cope with a difficult situation. I had a lot going on at once, and when I did finally start discussing my history, it was because I was in a good place and the timing was appropriate.
However, I wish I had been more clear about how there are times when I don’t want to talk about it. My struggles are not problems to be solved, much less in a short period of time. In lieu of deep conversations, I’d more prefer a hug or doing something else to get my mind off of whatever I’m going through. I appreciate those that went and got drinks with me when I suggested it, because there are a lot of fun memories that came out of those nights. I still wonder if certain friends were able to witness my bubbly, goofy side when we spent time together.
There were rough patches, a falling out during freshman year, and thankfully a falling back in before graduation. I had my pet peeves (lack of communication with cell phones among them) and I’m sure I equally drove them crazy with my own shortcomings. There were a lot of times where I wanted to yell “you don’t get it!” or “you’re not listening to what I’m saying!” because of personality clashes. Through it all we stayed in each other lives, and that’s a true testament to what they meant to me, and most likely what I meant to them as well.
I’ve often focused on what they’ve done for me rather than what I’ve learned from them. A lot of it has to do with self-acceptance and not being ashamed of who you are both inside and out. I know that I am my own worst critic and that I tend to self-blame for matters that aren’t my fault. I’ve spent a lot of time loving and trying to be who I feel like I should be, rather than loving and being the person I know that I am. Not all of these guys know each other personally, but they all have good hearts. Do you want to know why?
They were able to see in me what I couldn’t see in myself, at least not for a very long time. And I think that’s why God gives us friends.
I’m now comfortable saying that I appreciate being taken care of and protected. It doesn’t always have to be in the traditional sense, but for me it means being close to people. I don’t want or expect anyone to hold my hand, but just let me know that you’re walking through this with me. Sometimes it means just being heard or validated. That’s more than enough.
The goodbyes did not happen all at once, but they were no less painful and difficult to do. I still recall the last hugs from each of them and crying for at least an hour once I was alone. I’m at least a hundred miles away from each of them now and I’m grateful for the convenience of texting and calling when there’s time. Yet nothing compares to bonding over classic rock music, being competitive over our favorite sports teams (particularly if and when they’re rivals), or just being goofballs. I miss the traditions and typical weekend happenings. Those are the little things that I savored and continue to look back on.
I care for them each in my own little way and I hope that despite the distance, we will one day cross paths again (or at least use technology to our advantage). Though I’m still a little sad, I give thanks and I count my blessings. Not everyone can say they've had several years with such amazing people.