The Importance of Friendships

by Christina Bruni Patient Expert

In the book, My Sister, My Love by Joyce Carol Oates, Mummy wrote out on pink sheets of paper the social hierarchy of her women friends in Fair Hills, New Jersey-the ultra-rich suburban enclave. My more modest list includes: Zoe, Ana, Merry, David W., Robin, Sheila, Dwight, Kurt, and Eric. I dedicate this blog entry to these good friends.

Here now I'd like to talk about the benefit of friendships in recovery from schizophrenia. My theory is that most people can count on one hand the number of close friends they can pour their heart out to-the "Five Friends" theory. Early in my life when I saw my first therapist, I suggested, "What more does anyone need except two friends, pizza, and a really great sound system?"

After I graduated college and was hospitalized, and came home from the Veronica Lane ward, the friends I met in school fell away. I hosted a New Year's Eve party, and when everyone left for the night, I stayed up until 6:00 a.m. washing and scrubbing the pots and pans in the kitchen sink. Tears flowed. It was the lowest point in my life. The Fetchin' Bones [a band I played on the FM radio as a disc jockey] lyrics' ran through my head that sorrowful morning: "So you think you saw your whole life/And it makes you crazy/Till you think of pulling the plug/You know you know too much." I looked out the window onto the silver winter sky, crying and crying. How could I go on?

In retrospect, the "friends" I'd met at the radio station I had nothing in common with except a love of music. They were casual drug users and I didn't want to go down that dangerous road. I had a life ethic, and that was what pulled me through when I couldn't see the light at the end of the tunnel: I trooped on, I persisted until I could see that light.

Three years later, having come out of the residence, I lived on my own and had one friend who survived from the halfway house. That was another effort-I had to do things on my own in order to succeed, at a time when I knew no one else I could rely on for support. A failed attempt at group therapy yielded a dysfunctional friendship I ended after much agony four years later.

So how, may you ask, did I find the true keepers on my short list? I met everyone of them in the past six years, through either the support group or the advocacy journal whose editorial board I was on. These things I value: a commitment to one's recovery, loyalty, a person's ability to accept me as I am, their faith in life.

I fondly remember when Eric lived in my neighborhood and we'd go to the Park View diner [inedible food; he liked to listen to the mini-jukebox at the table] and talk about anything, even the schizophrenia, which turned heads at the lunch counter stools.

As I said in an earlier blog entry, my break was sudden, total, and irrevocable. There was no turning back; my life was cut in half, forever changed. So to know my friends have been there and understand is a great relief. After graduating Pratt, I stayed friends with a woman who I've slowly drifted from. She doesn't call me on the phone any more, and I don't call her, either. I wonder if she Googled me, or simply went her separate way. For four years, I stayed friends with C., a woman I met at a Clubhouse, until we had a falling out. In retrospect, I realize I could've tried to work on things.

This is not to suggest that only peers make the best friends, because that isn't always the case. I believe we should seek common ground with those people who don't have a psychiatric diagnosis-the "so-called normals."

Why are friendships so important to our recovery from schizophrenia? Isolating in our room intensifies the effect of feeling different and alone. Developing friendships allows us to meet the demands of life. A job is not essential; a romantic relationship could be beneficial yet is not possible for everyone. Friendships, on the other hand, are the staff and sustenance of emotional fitness.

Indeed, when our birth family can't support us, it is often our "families of choice"-like friends-who step into this role. When I find my next apartment, I intend to host a housewarming, and also dinner parties where my friends can network and also be social. Staying in and ordering pizza or taking home sandwiches from a deli are inexpensive ways to meet, and you can play Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit, too.

Next Saturday, Ana invited me to her co-op for just such a low-key gathering. She knows I'm trying to save money to buy a co-op as well, so is brainstorming cheap things to do.

While I don't feel you have to go as far as to write down your friend's names on a pink sheet of paper, I do know you need to show them you appreciate them-with a birthday card, a phone call, or even flowers if they go into the hospital.

Friends may come and go, yet their impact lasts. True friends stay that way no matter what. At the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, I think that even a kind word often suffices to thank your friends for being there.

Coming up soon is the return of the "100 Individuals with Schizophrenia" interview campaign. Also look for another "Recovery Café."

Christina Bruni
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Christina Bruni

Christina Bruni wrote about schizophrenia for HealthCentral as a Patient Expert. She is a mental health activist and freelance journalist.