My friendships these days are sources of inspiration and encouragement—including the one I have with myself.

By Nneka M. Okona
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My years as a Girl Scout are mostly a blur of sashes and uniforms—a fast flurry to accumulate as many patches as possible—but one pillar that stuck with me was how essential, necessary, and life-giving friendships were supposed to be. “Make New Friends” was that truth delivered in song form around campfires and in scout meetings.

I learned then that friendships were serious business. You made friends to keep them for as long as possible—hopefully forever. But learning about the depth of friendship and how transformative and powerful they can be—when done right with an open heart—wasn’t something I truly experienced until I started college.

I met the person who later became my best friend at our college’s summer orientation. We would go on to live together for three years. My first semester, as I struggled to acclimate to being away from home, I only saw her in passing. During the second semester, we had the same General Chemistry class. Sitting together in class graduated to hanging out in her dorm room watching movies and gabbing. It was the connectedness I sorely needed. As the end of the school year came to a close, it seemed only natural for us to room together the upcoming year.

The next three years were undoubtedly special. We shared our hearts, laughter, stress from studying and classes. We hosted dinners and parties at our apartment. She was my lifeline and someone I had grown to depend on in ways I had never truly depended on a friend before. I was used to counting on myself as my only number one. She changed that. When I decided to switch majors to journalism, she reassured me that I was doing the right thing in following my heart, despite feeling like I was disappointing my parents. She encouraged me to be myself.

As we neared the end of college, I knew things would be different. But knowing how we’d spent years laying a strong foundation for a friendship that would last far beyond college, I had no concerns. And then things changed in a way I couldn’t anticipate.

We saw each other less and less, which was expected when we moved to different areas around Atlanta. The string of texts and phone calls started to lessen. I felt out of her sphere and left out. When we did see each other, our interactions were awkward fumbles, like something had shifted. Neither of us could put our finger on it, so we never spoke of it. When I finally did bring up the fact that our friendship felt one-sided to me, we had a massive fight.

We didn’t talk for a long time after that. Eventually I grew tired of pretending I didn’t miss her. I reached out. We went to dinner. I learned she was engaged. She asked me to be in her wedding as a bridesmaid. I said yes. Things between us still didn’t feel right though. She was back in my life, yes, but it felt like she was in another galaxy altogether. I had missed so much of her life. She had missed some of my life, too. I missed learning the moment she had gotten engaged. I’d started a new job I was excited about. How would we recover the gaps?

Sometimes gaps can’t be recovered. Sometimes friendships can’t either. It felt like we weren’t orbiting near each other, because we weren’t. What we’d once had in common had blistered away, leaving only the ruins of our friendship behind. We had grown apart—slowly, unsuspectingly.

I mustered up the courage to tell her. I also told her it probably was best I not be in her wedding. My hands shook and my voice wavered. She cried on the phone. My stomach twisted in knots as I pondered if being honest had even been worth it. She told me she had already mailed my bridesmaid gift. That was the last time we spoke. I never got the gift.

In the months that followed, I felt forlorn and lost. I’d tried to focus on remembering how this magical bond, years before, had inspired and enthralled me. Instead, it seemed I only succeeded in facing the sobering truth that even life-changing, healing friendships aren’t forever. 

My disappointment inadvertently forced me to focus on myself and rebuild the relationship I had with me. I realized that although I’d always considered myself to be a lone bird, I’d never really tried to navigate the world in solitude and shifted my life to make a more conscious effort to do so, bit by bit.

Movies and dinners were the first things I tried to do alone. Those hours watching films and eating dinner with a book as a companion felt awkward at first, but as time wore on, I began to crave my solo adventures. I found that befriending yourself is a trial-and-error process, one that involves unraveling your many layers to forge self-acceptance. Those hours spent alone greatly clarified what I wanted and needed from other close friendships in the future: I wanted to enjoy spending time with other people as much as I enjoyed spending time alone.

My friendships these days are sources of inspiration, sustenance, encouragement, and love. The number of people I call friends is small; I’ve learned that the measurement of fulfilling friendships is in quality not quantity. Despite that, however, there is a hollow space within my spirit, a space hidden away from the world, where the emotional histories of past friendships reside. The space is a reservoir for heart-to-heart conversations, brunches and wine dinners, moments where I shared amazing and heartbreaking news.

It is a space where I don’t have to be ashamed. Where I can accept that sometimes friendships don’t last forever, and their ending is not an indictment on my worthiness. The friendships I’ve lost were beautiful in their time and remain so even now, looking back. They taught me about being vulnerable and caring for other people. And now I’ve learned that I’m just as capable of giving myself the same love, care, and affection, so I can, in turn, give it freely to others.

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