Last week, my friend Laura Jane said she loved me. We were parting after an evening spent celebrating her birthday at the theatre, the first time we had been able to meet up in over a year. One of my favourite things about Laura Jane is that she tells it to you how it is. She has no time for fluff or bullshit, so when she said she loved me, I had no choice but to believe her. She’s said it to me many times before, but still, I hesitated before I said it back. I always do, and then I hope that she doesn’t notice. Each and every time I have to fight an invisible instinct around those words, because before I met her I had never thought to say "I love you" to someone I wasn't related to or romantically involved with. But even though we may not see each other as often as we'd like, and our lives may be very different, I do love her, as I love all of my close friends.
As I sat on the tube train home overanalysing the evening, it suddenly struck me that for most of my life I've had a rather skewed perspective of what friendship should look like. Aren't you meant to be living across the hall from each other? Hanging out whenever you can on colourful furniture, always involved in every aspect of each other's lives? Aren't we meant to meet for coffee or chat on the phone at least once a day, poring over our jobs and our sex lives and falling in and out of love with each other? The truth is that I don't do this with anyone. In fact, I don't know anybody who actually lives like this. I don't have one small, solid core group of friends who are always there. I have varied and nebulous circles of friends who sometimes interact, but to be perfectly honest, most of my free time is spent alone and on Twitter. Am I doing things wrong somehow? Am I being an adult wrong? Because even though I like things the way they are, sometimes it can feel that way. As the tube train charged north carrying me home, it dawned on me: My expectations have been ruined by television, and one TV show in particular.
I was 14 in 1998: peak golden-age Friends. It was when Chandler got stuck in a box to appease Joey, Phoebe was pregnant with her brother’s triplets, and the whole gang (except a real-life pregnant Lisa Kudrow) came to frolic in London. We were all obsessed with the show, except back then it wasn’t obsession, it was just normal. You were weird if you didn’t watch it. I had a Friends calendar hanging up in my room. I'd watch episodes with my parents when they first aired, but would also record them so that I could watch them again and again over the weekend. I wanted my life to be like that show – living in a New York loft, sipping espresso in quirky coffee shops with my best friends.
At the same time, my own friendships were crumbling. Reading back over my diary from this time, I'm amazed at my own perseverance with people who clearly didn't want me around. But I was desperate for the full Friends experience. I was sure that these were my people, and if I just stuck at it, I would find the kind of platonic love that I was craving.
Everything came to a head one night, a couple of weeks before school broke up for the year. The group of people I called my friends had spent weeks planning a party that was kept secret from me. And then, on the night of the party, as part of some sick entertainment, they ganged up to prank call my house pretending to be someone who had bullied me through primary school. I was devastated. Even more upsetting than the phone call itself was the fact that I had been so purposefully left out.
But even worse was to come the next day. My parents prepared me for what they thought was inevitable, that I would be flooded with apologies and brought back into the fold. But when I went back into school, my ex-friends were all gathered around a distant picnic table, pointedly ignoring me. I found I had nobody to talk to, nobody to sit with in class, and nobody to eat lunch with. I was entirely alone, and would remain frozen out for the next two years. It was mortifying, and would scar me deeply.
I still remember the panicked crying following that phone call, the pain as real as if somebody had cracked my head open with a baseball bat. My self-esteem wasn't all that great to begin with, but afterwards it was shattered. The next few years at school were spent anxiously trying to claw back a sense of identity and confidence in the people around me. Even now, when I'm low, the paranoia will creep in and infest my thoughts. Does anyone actually like me? Am I normal? Are people actively strategising how to get away from me? It's happened before. Why wouldn't it happen again?
And then it did. Just over a decade later.
I was living in Willesden Green with three girls who I had met via Gumtree. One of my flatmates was an obsessive clean-freak (just like Monica!), and worked in fashion (just like Rachel!). Another had perfect Jennifer Aniston hair and a string of not-quite-right boyfriends. I was the curly-haired version of Phoebe, with my kooky adventures working in radio broadcasting and questionable fashion sense. I finally had what I had always wanted. It may not have been a Manhattan loft, and we had a operatic soprano for a neighbour and not an ugly naked guy, but I should have been happy. So why wasn’t I?
It happened slowly, starting with them sharing their shopping bills and going on group sessions to the gym without me. I blamed myself because my crazy hours working in radio meant I was never on their regular office-hours routine. I worked weekend shifts, when they would hang out and explore London, and early mornings, often leaving the house hours before they would even think about waking up. Over the course of about six months, it became clear that I was not a part of their little club. I was ganged up on and frozen out all over again, just like in school. I was ignored while being passed on the stairs, accused of stealing money, and subjected to an American-style "intervention" regarding all my supposed flaws and the problems they had with my personality (my laugh was too shrill, I had weird taste in food, I went to bed too early). One evening, after spending most of the day in A&E with a scalded hand from a dodgy kettle, I got no interaction whatsoever. My self-esteem low and my paranoia high (and not helped by pain medication), I entertained the concept that I was actually invisible.The night of the intervention came a couple of weeks later, and even after that it was still at least a month before I finally got the courage to finally move out. I didn’t do it straight away because I didn’t want to look weak. I didn’t want to admit defeat — not just defeat by them, but defeat by my own dreams of how life in your twenties should be. Just a few weeks later, my breakdown became so intense and dangerous that I was admitted to a private psychiatric facility.
A nervous breakdown isn't something that happens all at once. With me it was like a dripping tap slowly filling up a sink. It would take years for the water to build up and that sink to finally overflow, but once it did, there was a huge, expensive mess to clear up. Did that tap start dripping way back in 1998? Quite possibly. The awful night of the phone call definitely came up over the course of my therapy. When I'm particularly stressed I still get nightmares about it now. In my diary from back then, I ask why friendship isn't like how it appears to be on the TV. I have a vague recollection of asking my parents the same thing. I had bought the Friends vision wholesale, and nothing else was ever going to match up. By holding all my relationships up to that impossible standard, I was constantly living in a world that was letting me down. No wonder I was depressed.
The good news is that getting through my depression led to me rediscovering my passion for writing, and here I am now, happily writing books for young people. In my first novel, Othergirl, I was determined for the central love story to be between two sister-like best friends. I was equally determined to have them say "I love you" to each other at the end of the book, something that was part inspired by my friendship with Laura Jane. I wanted my characters to be able to do what I had always found so difficult, and to experience something I was never able to at their age. I wanted to write about true friendship, which can be awkward and sometimes needs a lot of work. Because in reality there are no punchlines, and no live studio audiences to laugh at your foibles and pratfalls.
I can't believe that it's taken me until my thirties to realise that Friends is pure fantasy. It sold me an ideal, made me believe in something that is ridiculously rare (if it exists at all), and made me second-guess every important relationship I've had throughout my life. I've read countless articles about how Disney movies and assorted rom-coms distort our impressions of romance, but when do we ever take the time to assess how our nonromantic relationships have been affected by TV and film?
All the years I spent wishing for the Rachel and Monica to complement my Phoebe (I was, and will always be, a Phoebe), I've been missing out on something far more certain. I've invested so much energy in believing that there is something wrong with me, like there's some prize that's always been out of my grasp, or some instinct that I've got missing. For the last 20 years I've been trying to fix something that wasn't ever broken. I’m not blaming all my problems on a sitcom, but I am annoyed that I let myself believe in it for so long. The show hit me at an impressionable age, and courted me through the entirety of my teenage years. I thought the life it presented was what I should be aiming for, that nothing would be quite right until I had purple walls, mismatched kitchen chairs, and a yellow frame around my front door’s spyhole. The truth is, now that I’m past my tumultuous twenties and into my early thirties, I have exactly what I need. I may not share an apartment with my closest friends, but I know that they’d be there for me, even though they live far away and have their own separate and complicated lives.
Friendship isn’t one definite thing. It’s fluid and fits itself to whatever you may need. It casts a net wide and draws the right people in when you need them. Friendship is surprising, and comforting, and comes in all different shapes and sizes. Why it’s taken me this long to make sense of it is a complete mystery, but now that I have, I feel a lot less pressure to hold it up to some impossible Hollywood standard. I love catching a Friends rerun when episodes appear on obscure satellite channels, but now that I’m the same age as Monica, Chandler, et al, I’m pleased that I’m not living their lives. Mine has so much more variety, and so many more wonderful people in it.