In May 2015, I broke up with my boyfriend on a Tuesday. It was 9 p.m. I was exhausted. But as I walked to my car on the way back from delivering the news, I noticed the sky was beautifully split; splashes of cloudy, orange-pink warmth overwhelmed a backdrop of gray-blue.
I remember tracing every detail of the sky, over and over again in my mind until I fell asleep. Then, the very next day, Wednesday, I woke up early. I felt oddly hopeful, despite the peripheral ache I was trying to tune out, and decided that, yes, I would meet that random girl from the internet.
About a week prior, I had gotten an email from a twenty-something writer who had located me on Twitter. She asked me if I’d like to get coffee. She had recently moved to Ann Arbor and was looking to meet new people; she also swore that if I searched her on Google, I would find nothing shady. Surely that’s what all stalkers say in their emails.
But I did look her up, and she seemed utterly normal. We went to similar colleges. She wrote fiction, and even live-tweeted Southern Charm and The Real Housewives with her sister, which spoke to my love of deeply mainstream pop culture. She could still be nuts, I thought. But that email had come at a weird moment in my life. Outside an emotionally unavailable boyfriend I would soon be rid of, I was actively aware of how very alone I was.
For most of said life, I was convinced I wasn’t a “people” person. I grew up in a smallish Midwest town with a population just shy of 10,000. We had tractor-themed school spirit days and corn fields just down the road from our high school. I had a few friends, but largely didn’t connect with my peers.
When I’d tie up my shoes in the locker room before basketball practice or sit down in the cafeteria with my brown-bag lunch, my heart always felt worlds away from the chatter about boys, teachers and gossip. I didn’t fit in; I didn’t care. I played sports, ran the newspaper, then retreated home into the solace of my books, quiet ambitions and tight-knit nuclear family.
I considered my mom my best friend (still do, in fact). My dad and I were also tight; he served as my unofficial cheerleader/driver to practices and games, where I spent a great majority of my free time. My brother and I were both crazy-different personalities, but enjoyed (tolerated?) each other’s company more than most other people. Growing up under the same roof can do that to two introverted outsiders.
This state of social disarray transcended graduation and held steady until the end of college, which is when I realized how isolated I’d become. I’d made a few friends there, but many did not stick. Proximity friends from high school had dissipated, naturally; when you don’t have much in common, those bonds don’t remain. I’d lost my long-time best friend to a fight that proved we were two very different people, another good friend to a cross-country move (we didn’t stay in touch), and yet another to the good ol’ engagement-and-faaaade scenario.
I had tried to meet people a whole host of ways. I became close with someone from my creative writing class senior year and, although we have remained close, I felt like an imposter among her group of business-type friends (and she eventually moved, too). I joined my college’s new culinary publication and, again, didn’t seem to connect with anyone there. I went to mixers for young professionals. I tried hanging with a couple of “squads” full of great people who just didn’t feel like my people.
Coming in hot off a breakup to that Wednesday coffee date, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I could take another blow. My heart hurt. I had no friends. I needed distraction and mindless girl talk with someone who “got it.” Was meeting a Twitter stranger a desperate move?
If so, I’m glad I was feeling desperate that day. Getting that coffee with an internet stranger was the best random decision I’ve ever made. Steph and I did connect. We went from coffee, to an event, to dinner later in the evening. She told me about the long-distance saga with her ex-boyfriend. I let her listen to the lengthy apology voicemail my ex had left one week prior. We ate. We laughed. My heart hurt a little less than it had that morning.
What I’ve noticed about our culture is the need for intentionality in absolutely everything. A good date often won’t lead to another if you don’t follow up and express interest. A career won’t solidify if you don’t network with people who share similar passion and vision. And friendships won’t form with people who don’t reciprocate with effort and consistency. But it only takes two people’s intentionality to start a chain reaction.
About a month later, I met my friend Katie at a mixer. I introduced her to Steph. Steph introduced me and Katie to Jordan. Jordan introduced us all to Amber, and a slew of engineer guy friends (one of which was her boyfriend). I’m not sure how it all happened. From there, connections grew almost exponentially. People filtered in and out of the crew for the next year or so, and finally settled into a group of 15 or 20 adults who genuinely enjoy spending time together.
I honestly didn’t know what real friend-based support looked like, but my friends continue to blow me away.
A couple months ago, for example, I turned in edits for the book I was writing, which was like being in an echo chamber with my thoughts for weeks, questioning myself the whole way (fun!). I spiraled into hermit-mode immediately following. My friends pulled me out of it by surprising me with a fully organized dinner.
They made me a card and put my book cover on a cake. As I walked into the restaurant to see 10 of my closest adult friends, I could hardly process what was happening. I could feel the blank stare of confusion wash over my face. When I sank into my seat at the head of the table, I waded out into the feelings of gratitude. It was in that moment that I realized I’m one of the lucky ones. And like most worthwhile things in life, it took a ton of effort to get that lucky — effort which my friends and I all continue to bring.
We all have those moments in life where we reckon with the realities of actually living. For me, it started to sink in when I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia at 19 and was basically homebound with symptoms for the next year or so. Living can be hard. It is hard. I was a relatively-cool-with-it accidental loner, until I finally caved to the slap of reality: I was missing the kind of social support that makes maturing so much easier, more worthwhile. It was a vulnerability I hadn’t wanted to face for a long time.
I love my mom and dad. But parents age, and, eventually, they leave us. I love my brother. But siblings get busy with their own lives, on totally separate trajectories from our own; mine took up residence in the ‘burbs with a partner and two kids of his own. I hope to meet a romantic partner… someday. I’m also well aware there’s no guarantee that I’ll meet my life partner in early adulthood, or at all, unless I want to consider some serious compromises for perpetual companionship (I don’t).
The social sphere with the most potential for immediate impact is the one I overlooked the longest, amidst family history and the constant get-together-breakup cycles of dating: friends.
I wasn’t as committed to that search. But maybe I should have been, because my life changed dramatically when I was wholly intentional about the friends I invested in. Friends are the family you choose, after all. Sometimes, they have a corrective effect on our stories, bringing a certain kind of support we once lacked to our lives. They can often understand you in ways your birth family cannot; how you never fit in back home, how you’re evolving as a human, what sets your soul on fire and where you want to be. No matter where you come from, no matter what your upbringing or birth family is like, adult friendships can be about where you’re going.
Making those friends isn’t easy. There’s no obvious way to meet different kinds of people outside work colleagues and your former school peers. You fail a lot. You have to keep looking for those “clicks,” taking opportunities and making them, feeling slightly uncomfortable and lonely, even desperate, throughout the entire process.
For the record, I’m glad I took a chance on that email from a stranger, no matter how strange it felt to me at the time. (It hadn’t happened before, hasn’t happened since.) I’m glad Steph didn’t play it cool, either. And after that, I’m glad we tried, hard, to make friends, because we did make some of the best friends. (We’ll celebrate “Friendsgiving” later this week.)
We make intentionality so uncool sometimes. We love to romanticize “organic” connections, “natural” relationships and friendships. Well, I’m here to tell you, screw that. Try. Try hard. Ask to hang out. Follow up on “soft” happy hour invites by similarly unsure people. Chase people who carry the kind of energy you want to be around. Be as uncool as possible if that’s what it takes; ideally, your true, vulnerable self, with a heart desperate for the right kind of connection.
And if you haven’t found them yet, keep searching for your people, your other fam. Don’t give up until you find them. Chances are, the right ones will be looking for you, too.
Jenna Birch is author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love (Grand Central Life & Style).
Photos by Louisiana Mei Gelpi; Creative Direction by Emily Zirimis.