My friend “Jen” and I have known each other since childhood. We’ve always been self-described best friends in spite of being far apart for college, moves, relationships, etc. We now live in the same state about an hour apart.
We’ve never been the sort of friends who are in contact 24/7 or have a weekly girls night, but in the past couple of years, Jen and I haven’t been talking or seeing each other as much. Some of this is due to Jen’s health. She has a chronic medical condition that exacerbates some of her mental health issues, so she often doesn’t feel up to going places or seeing people. Before the pandemic hit, the last few times we hung out I just went to her apartment and helped her with some chores that she struggles with due to her health. She has said on multiple occasions that I’m one of her only “IRL friends” and that she feels like I’m one of the only people who she can rely on and I’m a great support for her.
My issue stems from the fact that almost all of Jen’s social contact now comes from Twitter. If I send her a text, she may not reply for three days, but if I reply to one of her tweets, she answers almost instantly. When we do see each other in person, she’s on her phone and tweets multiple times. It seems like the only way for me to know what’s going on with her life is to read her tweets. I found out that her dad was in the hospital and that she had been in a car accident from Twitter. This past winter, I found out she was checking into an inpatient mental health facility because my partner saw it on Twitter and told me. In all of these situations, I tried to reach her when I found out and we eventually talked, but it left me feeling like a shitty friend because my best friend, the person who says I’m her rock, was going through something terrible and I didn’t know until 12 hours later, 12 hours after over 1,000 followers already knew it! Recently, she came out as bisexual on Twitter. I didn’t reply because I was going to see her the next day and I wasn’t sure if it was something that she might want to talk about in person. Not a word.
This pattern is starting to get really annoying, so I guess my first question is, do I even have a right to be annoyed here? I don’t expect her to tell me everything all the time, but it bugs me that she says I’m her best friend and the only person she can rely on but she doesn’t tell me anything. Is this just the way life is in the 21st century? Do I, a non-online person, need to just accept my very online friend for who she is and keep tabs on her feed to keep up? Secondly, if I am right to be annoyed, should I say anything? I know she’s found a community on Twitter that’s important to her, and I don’t want to belittle that. I also don’t want to say anything that will upset her or make her reach out even less. I know she feels very depressed and isolated sometimes, and I’m afraid to exacerbate that. Do I talk to her? Do I just keep doing what I’m doing and check her feed? Do I stop responding to her tweets and seeing if she reaches out? Do I get over myself because this isn’t a big deal?
Any advice is appreciated.
Not Online Enough
Dear Not Online,
Let me start by thanking you for writing in with this question, because the extent to which I relate to Jen has prompted me to text some friends to let them know I’m moving, in case they missed my tweets about that fact. What a horrible confession! I’m ashamed by how easy it is to conduct yourself as though you can issue press releases about your life and everyone important will feel included.
It is so easy though, and that’s why it’s basically become a truism of online that posting and texting are “different energies.” Twitter is very good at simulating something that feels like conversation, stripped of any of the demands actually talking about your life with your friends entails. And when you are already apportioning a large amount of your emotional and physical energy to things like getting out of bed or maybe having a shower today, that kind of low-stakes social interaction can truly be a lifeline. When you are already inclined to withdraw and isolate, it feels like enough to send a little signal out into the world that you are still here.
Of course, it’s designed to feel like enough, when in fact it’s terribly insufficient. Spend too much of your day on Twitter and it can start to seem like disclosing facts about yourself is a meaningful replacement for being truly vulnerable with others; that being seen can save you the risks of being known. It’s a beguiling lie, which is why it works so well.
This is not to say that online friendships are less real or that relationships only count if you see the person regularly. I’ve met most of my closest friends on Twitter, which is an equally beautiful and embarrassing fact. And maybe Jen is cultivating meaningful friendships online, outside of the public interactions you can see. Maybe she’s not ignoring you because she’s overwhelmed but simply because you’ve grown apart, or because you have created a dynamic in which you’re the strong, supportive one who has her life together and she’s always in distress and eventually that becomes very tedious for both parties.
I think you’re absolutely right to be annoyed, but perhaps not for the reasons you think. You said that Jen’s behavior leaves you feeling like a shitty friend and I suspect that buried somewhere inside that feeling is the real problem: that you have come to believe Jen can only ever need your help. I mean it’s just objectively that case that Jen is being the shitty one here! She’s cutting you out and hurting your feelings and yet you’re still thinking of her as so fragile that it might not even be worth bringing up.
Don’t tell Jen you’re sorry because you feel like you aren’t being a good friend to her, tell her you’re hurt because you feel like she’s not being a good friend to you. Yes, people who struggle with mental health issues often require a certain gentleness or accommodation from those who love us but that doesn’t mean you can’t expect things from us. You can and you should.
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