I’ve mentioned it a few times in the past, but I’m not the friend that you call in an emergency.
Once upon a time, long ago and far away, I was tethered to my phone. I would answer it any hour of the night. I was worried about missing a single text or notification.
It was part of my identity, always being there for folks when they needed me. And I didn’t make as much of a distinction in those days between close friends and distant acquaintances.
Back then, I was the person you contacted in an emergency. The friend who’d stay up all night texting about your insecurities, fears, doubts.
Even if I had to be up early for work in the morning. And if we barely knew one another.
I could vividly remember all of the times when I really needed someone and no one was there for me. In a way, doing this was breaking the cycle. I had a rose-colored fantasy about being cherished because of this. About really making a difference.
I thought this would never change, being the go-to person. But it did.
Why I Stopped Being Emotionally On-Call 24/7
This is because of a few different things. The first — and the biggest — was going to therapy. I finally got a therapist who was a fellow nerd, and so instead of the normal process of hoping the answers wound their way out of my mouth during talk sessions, she took a detailed psychosocial history and then tried actually objectively testing me. After an extensive psychometric battery, I was diagnosed with PTSD, c-PTSD, and dependent personality disorder.
And then we started the talk therapy, aimed not only at what was troubling me but also tailored to how a person with my particular set of issues would best benefit.
Some of what we did together was assertiveness therapy. Looking back now, I can see it was incredibly basic, but at the time, I found it maddeningly challenging.
I would come home from sessions, crawl under the covers in my bed, and feel miserable. “I hate therapy,” I told my partner. “I’m going to keep going, but I want it stated for the record that I absolutely hate therapy.”
And I should have hated it. Because it challenged everything that I was doing to keep my life working. To keep going. Sure, they were maladaptive coping strategies, but it was all I had.
And I didn’t have confidence that I could successfully navigate life any other way. I didn’t believe that I could develop other skills. Therapy asked me, at a certain point, to take a leap of faith. And I wasn’t good at faith, not at all, and particularly so when it came to myself.
Anyway, a big thing I learned in therapy was the concept of healthy boundaries. The idea that I could set and define them, and while other people could feel however they wanted about them (because everyone gets to set boundaries and have a personal sense of them, not just me), that I was allowed to have my own way of doing things.
As we worked through the things I was struggling with (which included sorting through feelings surrounding divorce proceedings I had initiated), I realized I had to make many small changes. One of these was my policy of effectively being emotionally “on-call” 24/7.
What Happened When I Became Harder to Reach
It started gradually. When I went back to college (a huge adjustment for me, as I’d never done so on a big city campus and had switched majors), I missed a few texts here and there. I did circle back around when I could. However, I did find that one friend seemed to have drawn a rather malicious conclusion about my lack of response. They were going through a breakup and decided the fact that I didn’t respond right away meant that I sided with their ex. Well, I think so anyway. Because we’ve talked very infrequently over the intervening several years. They blocked/unfriended me all over the place after I didn’t respond RIGHT THEN.
And when I finally did approach them, their explanation didn’t make a whole lot of sense. I apologized for my part in things, but they neither accepted my apology nor apologized for anything they credibly had done (overreacting, misunderstanding, or anything). Instead, they emphasized (what follows is a paraphrase), “I really needed you, and you weren’t there for me. I was incredibly hurt.”
It wasn’t the end of the world or anything. We’d had many good conversations, and I’d considered them a friend, but I realized after they reacted that way that to lose such a “friend” isn’t much of a loss.
I had been gracious with their quirks, their imperfections. And it seemed like that was not reciprocated.
It occurred to me then that perhaps my 24/7 on-call emotional support wasn’t necessarily as appreciated as I thought. Perhaps it was easily taken for granted. Expected.
Little by little, I began to change more aspects of my physical technological life. I disabled the top-level push notifications on my phone. Put my phone on silent more often. And made it so effectively the only people who could be guaranteed emergency access to me were those who lived with me (because feasibly they could need time-sensitive help).
Even then, I’ll admit… one time my husband Justin literally had to throw snowballs at my window because he’d locked himself out of the house, and I wasn’t checking my phone. Oops. So there’s that.
Becoming a Little Harder to Reach Was the Best Mental Health Decision I Ever Made
All in all, however, I’d say that becoming a little harder to reach was the best mental health decision I ever made.
As the years wound on, and I began to work exclusively online, it became even more important to have boundaries in place re: expectation of a reply. Especially as I established a bigger presence as a writer and I began to get loads of reader correspondence, it got to a point where even if I NEVER wrote back to friends (which isn’t realistic in my opinion, I need to talk to friends), I didn’t actually have the time and energy to reply to everything I got from readers and still have time to write new material.
Over the years, I’ve become much harder to reach. It often takes me several hours or even days to respond to messages from friends sometimes. This is especially true if they’ve said something powerful, profound, interesting. Something that takes a bit of thought to answer appropriately. And while I do my best with reader mail, I don’t answer all of it (and certainly not always promptly).
Sometimes It DOES Bite Me in the Butt
If a conversation in my personal life peters out naturally, I basically never chase a person down. Occasionally, this has bitten me in the butt, I’ll admit it. Every so often, a friend will think I’m upset with them because a conversation will reach its natural end where neither of us really has anything to say and I won’t reach out for a while (because I am usually busy dealing with whatever is in front of me at the time). And neither will they, strangely. Interestingly, what seems to happen in these cases, is that the person will chase down a third party, a mutual friend, who will reach out to me and tell me that this other person wants to talk to me. Or that they’re worried or what have you.
Depending on the particular situation, I’ll either reach out or if they reach out first before I have time to think of what I want to say, I’ll write back when I see the message. These talks are usually a bit awkward since it will seem like they think I’m upset with them (usually just by how they’re acting) but I’m not, but I also don’t want to guess wrong or make it weird by assuming that I know how they’re feeling. So part of me really wants to just go, “Look, I’m not upset with you.” But also not wanting to do it apropos of nothing, because I’ve found that also puts people in a weird headspace. A bit like how saying “calm down” to someone who’s agitated is rarely an effective tactic, sometimes it’s better to take a more indirect approach. And this means that you find little ways to demonstrate that you’re not upset with them, without actually talking about the big Upset Monster in the room.
These talks are awkward but usually go well.
But there’s one thing they don’t do: They don’t change how I am. How I fundamentally operate. It’s something someone who wants to be friends with me either gets used to or doesn’t. And I don’t have a lot of say in that.
I Love Friendships Where No Matter How Much Time Has Passed, You Can Just Pick Up Where You Left Off
The nice thing is that I’m very understanding of my friends who don’t write back right away. And I’ve basically come to understand that not everyone wants to be chained to their phone or computer 24/7, so the fact that so-and-so hasn’t written back doesn’t mean I’m DEAD TO THEM. Or that I’ve said something unacceptable or whatever.
And I also have dear friends where we are a bit like pen pals, writing to one another warmly, personally, authentically — but maybe with each of us only reaching out to the other person once a year at most.
Sometimes I hear people say that you aren’t really friends if you don’t talk constantly. If you aren’t continually enmeshed in one another’s lives. But I have to say that some of my greatest bonds are with people where we can not talk for years and then spontaneously pick up where we left off the next time we drift into one another’s lives.
And the reality is that I have too many friends, too many people I’ve come to know and love and bond with deeply over the years, to actually talk to all of them constantly. Especially if I want to get anything else done.
Some people think that kind of friendship isn’t real friendship. Well, so be it. I know it still means a lot to me and is part of what makes my life beautiful and lovely. That I’ve known and bonded with so many people in a way that has changed us both forever.
Anyway, I feel like the ability to respond at any time doesn’t necessarily create the obligation to do so. And when we confuse the two, we’re actually making the fact that we choose to reach out to others less meaningful.