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  • Alexandra Hillenbrand

panicking but pulling it off/ it's nice to have a friend

My train window faces the coast, providing me with a view of golden sun rays reflecting on a body of water. Now, I don't know what the body of water is because I have no idea where this train is passing through, but I do know that the view is pretty. I'm being lulled into a quiet state of peace by Kacey Musgrave's "Deeper Well" album as I watch the trees blur into a cloud of brown and green.

In parallel to the serenity of this moment, my mind reminded me of an opposite experience back in July. I had woken up, startled and scattered, rushing to Moynihan Hall where I would not only miss my own train, but board one going in the exact opposite direction. This experience was a conceivable tragedy, born out of my own lackadaisical tendencies and inability to read train numbers, apparently. That day felt like an outward expression of how things were going in my life. Directionless, frantic, and riddled in panic.

My mind felt dipped in failure and ingrained with disappointment. Something had to change, but what would it be? The problem was: I didn't feel like I could change. Changing seemed so exhaustive and out of reach. Besides, life had always gone so poorly for me up until that point, so it must have been something I deserved. (That's really how I thought about myself.)

All I knew was. I had failed to make my train because of my own lack of planning and carefulness. Whereas I was always careful of other people's thoughts, feelings, and time - I had never learned how to do so for myself. I always felt a sick, twisting feeling in my stomach whenever I disappointed anyone. This prioritizing of others included truly visceral physical reactions. I panicked when people ignored, excluded, or abandoned me. So, I thought making myself accessible made me important. Really all it did was ruin my relationship with myself.

Two hours later, I boarded a second train, going in the correct direction this time. Still, my heart palpitated in my chest. Well, I had failed my family by arriving to our vacation late. I had failed myself by being so irresponsible, again. I wrote a blog about it, disguising my anxiety with humor and casualness. The reality was, I was have an existential episode, staring with my eyes open into space, knowing that I had some serious work to do on myself.

I realized that I had a lot of things missing in my life. The first being any form of self-value. The second: any personal responsibility (besides the anxiety). Lastly, I didn't have any motivation. I had done nothing of importance within the few months since I had graduated college. (Besides start a blog and start hot girl walking). But, I was still stagnant. I was still waiting for a push from an external force. I never conceived that it could come from me.

That week, the lake attempted to wash my blues away with its murky green waters. I wrote my first post that was sincere. Meaningful. I was inspired by my MomMom. The child I once was had been mesmerized by the glittery way she told us stories. My body was shaky and laced with regret. I jumped in, I jumped in, I jumped in.

The people around you will reflect the way you feel about yourself. But, you are also the first point of contact for yourself at any given moment. If you do not like yourself, it becomes coincidental that you are surrounded people who don't like you either. Because "we accept the love we think we deserve", and all of that nonsense.

A good friend is hard to come by and even harder to keep. So, you have to be your own friend first. I wouldn't expect you to become your best friend initially, especially if you've been at a constant war with yourself since you were a child. But you have to try to be capable of giving yourself the empathy you constantly dispense to others. Not everyone wants the same things, which means not every friend is meant for you. But you have to remember that you have to be there for yourself, especially because, at times, you will be the only person you have.

The thing is, life is only really made up of the moments we have alone with ourselves and those with have with others. Because these are both true, you have to like yourself and surround yourself with people who make existence special and breathable. No matter how rare these people might seem. I have found it easier to enjoy my own company after I've spent time with a good friend.

It's so special, really, to have picked these once strangers and turned them into people with whom one shared word results in immediate laughter. It's truly one of the few human experiences that makes me remember that life can be wonderful. Like you really don't have to do it all alone, not if you don't want to.

On Halloween, I invited some friends to spend a weekend in New Jersey. These girls had always my friends, but I felt like our closeness was still 'new'. I was hosting, so I felt responsible to ensure that the weekend went perfectly. (Except, it's me, so perfection was never going to be the takeaway.) We boarded a train that I thought was taking us to Hoboken. (This was my local train station, it should have been nearly impossible for me to mess up. Wrong.) When 40 minutes went by, we were in New York Penn Station. Not exactly where we were supposed to go.

Of course, I went silent on the train as I began to notice our location wasn't getting closer to Hoboken. I wanted to blame it on anything other than myself, like NJTransit just totally decided to hijack this train and take us to New York, except we were the only passengers who were affected by it (because New Jersey people are so chill). I think this lack of accountability was because I was afraid of how everyone might react to my mistake. All this to say, that when I made this error, I half-expected to be met with turned shoulders and annoyed glances. (Not because these ladies would ever do that to me, but because of past experiences that I'm sure we've all had with people who don't really value us.)

Instead, we took a picture outside Madison Square Garden and made the entire experience into a bit about our costumes, the Barden Bellas. "It's just a mistake, Al." When I was quiet, nobody used it as an excuse to talk about how sensitive I was. Nobody rolled their eyes and walked five feet ahead of me. It was the first time I have ever felt that safe with a group of people who weren't my family. It was the first time that I didn't let one mistake capture my attention for the rest of the night.

It was like a hand had pressed my heart and squeezed it. I'm not the navigator, I should never be the navigator, but at the end of the day it was not such a big deal. We took the Path to Hoboken and we had fun and I felt like I dropped ten pounds of existential dread. And for once, I didn't feel like ripping out my hair because I made a mistake. And nobody else wanted to either.

When I try to describe the growth I see in myself, I find it hard to articulate without feeling as if I'm evangelizing myself. The truth is I can only give myself partial credit. The reality is, it has been the people around me who have given me the safety net to fail, to wallow, and to celebrate the smallest victories. Through their unconditional kindness and friendship, I have seen myself through some pretty challenging times. The things I had feared that I couldn't 'change' about myself, have become things that I have slowly mended. Like taking a deep breath before I make a mistake, so that I simply don't make it. Like, being able to take extra caution by arriving to a train station with time to spare and stand on the 'right' tracks well before my train even arrives.

Realizing that I can panic, but still pull it off anyway.

I think I even see this in the way I now handle the moments of discomfort. Where I once lived in them, sunken into the hollows of my mind, I can shake them off successfully. I don't know when this clicked it to place, but it certainly did not happen over night. A year ago today, I would have never had the weekend I just had. I would never have taken a train alone to Boston, I would have never felt so secure in who I had become, and I never would have gotten up before my 9:26 train with enough time to get a coffee with a friend. I just wouldn't have. And it feels like a breath of fresh air to realize that I did it.

It seems minuscule, as if people don't take public transport and see their friends everyday. Well, for someone who hates change, anticipates unpredictable variables with a worst-case scenario mindset, and never puts themselves outside of the safety net of their immediate environment it was a big deal. As someone who has been vocally so uncertain of their value in the world, it was a massive deal. It's like a glaring, tangible measure of my growth.

Have you ever left a conversation with a friend and felt inspired to do something new - anything - just to be better? I love this feeling. Like in September, after I saw Gen in the city and she told me about her new hobby as a runner, I decided to try (and the politely decline) running. Then, I had to look up "tweed" on Pinterest. Whenever I see Rachel, I want to be just as capable of being true to myself and drinking tea and crocheting. Annie reminds me why I want to write, for all the thoughtful and nerdy reasons alike. Cat makes me want to be kinder, more resilient. Maggie inspires me to be friendlier, more affirming with my words. Sabrina keeps me honest, sane, and driven.

So, I think that's where my growth has come from. From every person who has seen me at my absolute worst and still loved me anyway, despite how difficult it may have been to do. For every awkward moment I bring, I have also brightened someone else's day. From myself too, for working so hard to nourish the relationship I have with myself which has allowed me to become a person even more capable of being a good friend.

So, a missed train was a catalyst for change. And I know I will never be the perfect person, and I know I will always be the worst navigator of my group of friends. I know that I will always be a little bit of an oddball and that I'll say something inarticulate and it won't be what I meant and I'll lay awake at night thinking about it years later.

This weekend, I shared a bed with Cat in her apartment in Boston. I had a nightmare, from which I jarringly woke up, shining my flashlight in her poor, sleeping face. I was half-awake, convinced that I was in an entirely different place than I was, but when I saw that I was still, in fact, next to Cat blinding her with my phone light, I took a breath. "Oh god Cat I'm so sorry. Had a nightmare, so so scary. So scary."

And she barely even stirred. "That's okay, go back to sleep."

I fell back asleep easily, half-convinced I had entirely dreamed the scenario.

Cat and I stayed up for two hours the next night, discussing moments of self-doubt and in return, dispensing pieces of advice to each other. I had forgotten what that had been like, to be a little kid talking to your best friend at a sleepover. Back then, you were probably talking about your classroom crush. Now, being 23 and feeling like the world is so often ridiculously cruel, it's nice to have a friend to hear you out and then tell you why it's not so bad.

It's nice to have a friend, to feel heard, to feel had. It's simple, it's a hearth of happiness, its my greatest triumph.

Just having that moment with Cat felt so comforting. The hushed tones, the stupid laughter, the safety blanket of friendship - it's something that I had once, and then lost. And the loss of friendship is so painful, because there are the people you invested everything into and then one day walk pass on the street like strangers again. It's a devastating feeling to lose it, and so it's terrifying to try again.

But here I am, and I have it again. I have a friend. In so many people. Sometimes, it's hard to believe that I deserve it or that it will last. But, I've begun to believe that it will. If not for any reason other than how much my friends inspire me to be better. How every time I see them, I feel the same expressive, imaginative way that I did when I was a little kid. They saw something in me that I never saw in myself. And in turn, eventually, I found it too. <3


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