By Raymond Navarro MS LMHC 8/15/2021
What is a friend anyway? As a therapist I am constantly telling my clients how important it is to have friends and the positive effects of spending time with them. I tell them how everyone needs a strong support system and that we all need people we can confide in. Friends are someone we can trust, someone that has our best interests at heart, someone that wants us to be happy and progress in life. But what if we’re wrong? What if we choose the wrong people to be our friends? What if someone tells them lies about us? Will they believe us? Do they know that we would never hurt them? Unfortunately, when we bring people in, when we show them our deepest secrets and our worst fears, they sometimes use them against us.
As a child I went to 11 different schools. Whether it’s because we were moving around all the time, because we couldn’t afford the rent, or me doing something stupid and getting kicked out of my school, it seems that I was continuously being thrown into a group of strangers and being forced to create new relationships. As kids we tend to have way less knowledge and experience as our adult counterparts but we still have the same urge to connect, in many cases that urge is even stronger as a child because we have yet to truly feel the pain of being betrayed by a friend. We haven’t learned to be numb yet.
There is one thing that every friend good or bad gives us every time. A lesson. When I was a kid I learned betrayal, I learned the power of envy, I learned that there were levels of trust, and I learned that friends required constant work. When you’re in elementary school friends betray you by saying small lies or making fun of you when you’re not looking. Some will even “rat” on you to the bullies just to keep themselves from being bullied. In middle school it becomes more about hormones and trying to impress someone from the opposite sex. In high school it starts to become more diabolical. It can still be about the opposite sex but now there’s rage, hatred, and physical violence. As an adult we leave the confines of a school building and enter the open world of real life, that’s when the gloves come off but that’s also when you get good at selecting the few that GET to be a part of your life.
By the time I reached High school I had already been bullied for years. I was well versed in the dangers of talking to the wrong people. The problem is that to escape one evil I accidently threw myself into another. The gang life is not for everyone but it is an attractive option for a young man looking for safety. My freshman year of High school I was forced to move across the country and restart my life, the reason why is a story in itself. Moving wasn’t new to me but I had no idea the culture shock I was about to walk into. The move from Miami Florida to Portland Oregon might as well have been from here to the moon.
One of the first people I met in Portland was a kid named Jeremy. I didn’t know it at the time but under that disguise of a person lay a monster at rest. Jeremy introduced me to his friends. He told me his secrets, he introduced me to girls, and he took me to parties. I was instantly happy but more importantly I was safe. Or so I thought. Jeremy also taught me how to rob, he taught me how to break into homes, hotwire cars, and take what I wanted, regardless of the circumstances. I developed a “us against the world” philosophy. He taught me how to be tough. I thought our loyalty was unbreakable. For the most part our loyalty was never challenged, at least in the face of authority. It wasn’t until his own safety was challenged that Jeremy turned on me like I was nothing. One night we messed with the wrong people and I was accused of taking from them. They found me, they held me against my will and they beat me. The bruises are gone and I can barely remember the event itself but the one thing I remember clearly is when they brought Jeremy in the room. I remember clearly as the lies about me just spewed out of his face. I remember clearly how he sat there and watched them hurt me. I also remember the strength that he gave me and how angry I was at him for his part. I never admitted to the accusations. Till this day I believe the only reason I am alive is because no matter what they did, I denied any part. It was Jeremy that gave me that strength and it was Jeremy that taught me loyalty has a limit and that most people will put themselves first, always. I also learned that I didn’t want to be like Jeremy, that I would never put my needs ahead of the ones I care about.
I ended up having to leave Portland out of concerns for my life. Coming back to Miami I felt as if Portland had converted me into a modern day gangster. I was angry, I knew how to fight, and I wasn’t scared of anyone. The next few years I spent on a rampage. I went from bad group of friends to even worse group of friends, but eventually I started hanging out with “nicer” people. I started realizing that I didn’t want to hurt people anymore. And that my own anger was fueled by the same people I thought were my friends. This is about the time that Jose entered my life.
Jose was the nicest person I knew at the time. I remember looking at him sometimes and just thinking “is this guy full of shit”. His kindness and desire to do the right thing when he didn’t have to was mindboggling to me. I wanted to be like Jose. He was kind, he was loved, and he was a good friend. I would stay at his house whenever I couldn’t go home (which was a lot). His mom treated me like I was family and was always asking me how I was and what my plans were. I liked being at his house, more than I liked being at my own, if I’m being honest. Jose was the type of guy that not only kept me out of trouble but helped me realize why I didn’t want to get in trouble in the first place.
Our friendship went on for nearly a decade. I brought him home and introduced to my father which in turn gave him the career he has to this day. We let him work in our office and showed him everything we knew about the business. I had never done anything like that before, and I haven’t done it since. Then he got a girlfriend.
Little by little we started seeing less and less of Jose. I figured this was normal but how could a girl ever get between us? I wasn’t worried about it at all. Then one day I got a phone call from a guy telling me how Jose’s girl had been talking about my girl at the time. Again I knew I would have to handle this delicately, but nothing could come between us. I went to Jose’s house later that day and I informed him about what I had heard and explained to him that I wasn’t mad but could he ask her to stop spreading rumors or at least ask her about it. He agreed. After all she called my girl a coke head and a lesbian, which was news to me (I think they were lies but who knows and who cares at this point). Thinking everything was cleared up we hung out for the rest of the day and then I went home. It wasn’t until weeks later of not answering my calls that I realized that for the first time in my life I had been ghosted. For the decade that came after that I questioned my own actions and I even thought that he, this kind and loving man, had decided that I wasn’t good enough to be his friend. I later found out that his girl, future wife, had told him that he could no longer be my friend. It broke my heart but Jose taught me a few valuable lessons. He taught me that some people will avoid conflict at all costs, even at the price of losing a friend. He taught me that to have good friends you needed to be one yourself. He taught me relationships are complicated and that it’s not that hard for outside forces to influence your friend’s perspective. Finally, Jose taught me that I didn’t want my friendships to be influenced by my relationships. I decided that whoever I make my partner in life, she would want me to have friends, because good friends make life better, and she would want me to be happy.
I’ve had so many experiences with “friends” that hurt me or made me feel some sort of way but the last one I want to talk about is my friend Pickle (yes that’s his nickname, no he doesn’t look like a pickle). Pickle was my “ride or die” friend. This guy was down for anything. Nicest guy, always trying to be tougher than he was, and I loved him for it. He wasn’t concerned with getting hurt and he called me brother. If anyone messed with me they were going to have a hard life. Pickle was relentless and would do anything for his friends. Pickle was the second person to ghost me. I was supposed to get married about a month later. I wanted pickle to walk my wedding. It was important to me that he be a part of my life moving forward but he was gone. Heading up to my wedding I called him multiple times a day and reached out to all of our mutual friends to see if I could find him but nothing. It’s as if he fell off the face of the earth. My wedding came and went and nothing. I had a child, years later I had another child, and still nothing.
After a decade I had convinced myself that it must be me. I had already lost one friend because I wasn’t good enough, didn’t it make sense that I would lose pickle because I’m a bad person too? I thought I had learned to be a better friend. I reminisced for years wondering if I had done something to hurt him but I couldn’t think of anything. I ended up giving up on the idea that we would ever talk again.
I’m not even sure how it happened, I think it was a Facebook message but I could be wrong, but we started talking again. Ten years! It felt as if not a day had passed, but there was always that elephant in the room. He told me that he had to cut me off because his dad was sick and dying. He said he didn’t know how to handle it and I called him an idiot and told him that’s what friends are for. It wasn’t till I got divorced years later that he told me about some things my wife had said about him before I married her. He went on to say that she had made him look like a fool and that he didn’t want to be the reason my soon to be marriage would end. We spoke at length that day cracking jokes about how he could’ve saved me wasted time. While I was devastated and still think it was a dumb reason, I forgave him and we’re still friends to this day. In fact, I spoke to him this morning.
That experience with pickle taught me the importance of patience. He taught me that there is always a bigger picture, that things aren’t always so simple. More importantly he taught me to never give up on good friendships. Rarely do we find people in our lives that make our lives better but not because people are mostly bad but because we are so unique. It’s not easy to find people that mix well with our personality types but they are out there.
So what is a friend again exactly? Growing up I had a lot of them, but is that because my definition of the word was so broad? With my experiences I learned what I want from a friend but more importantly I learned what type of friend I wanted to be.
So do we really need friends? Is it about the support and counsel that I mentioned in the intro, or is it deeper than that? Yes, our friends are there when we need them but our friends also teach us. They teach us who we want to be and what we should value most in life. If there’s one thing to take away from this is that even our bad relationships help us grow. Even our bad friendships make our “good” ones stronger. We need friends because without them life is incomplete.