LOUISE O'NEILL: They say you know who your true friends are in times of hardship

I was having lunch with a school friend of mine recently and she asked me how I was.

She did so in the manner that only a good friend can, with a Real-Talk expression on her face, ready to object if I tried to fob her off with an “I’m fine! Everything is great!” type of response.

I told her I was tired. I told her I was looking forward to a more peaceful 2017, when I could focus solely on my writing.

We talked a little about what had happened in the last year and I expressed my disbelief at the lack of support from people I had thought were close friends and family members.

“Irish begrudgery” she said to me, shaking her head.

I couldn’t stop thinking about that, long after we had said our goodbyes. They say you know who your true friends are in times of hardship, that old cliché about looking around to check who’s left when the chips are down.

I think Irish people are particularly good at that.

When my uncle died in 1999, we were drowning in vats of stew and homemade apple pies, my grandparents’ house full of people wanting to offer their condolences in the face of our sorrow.

When I was hospitalised with anorexia in 2006, I was humbled by the humanity of my friends and family and even relative strangers.

They visited and sent presents, there were novenas said and masses offered, sympathetic words and thoughts and we’re thinking of you and take care of yourself.

Such kindness, I thought, how blessed I am to have such kindness in my life.

But now I wonder if maybe some people like the hushed voices and the whispered conversations about that ‘poor girl’ and her ‘poor parents, they must be driven demented’, if they like the role of being compassionate to the less fortunate, if they like what that compassion says about them.

Maybe it’s not as easy to be kind when that same person is thriving.

I often get asked how the people of Clonakilty reacted to Asking For It, which can seem like a damning indictment of small town life, and I cannot emphasise enough how sincere their response has been.

They seem genuinely proud of the success of the novel, showing an openness of spirit that has reassured me that moving home was the right decision.

While I don’t expect people to sit around with me to discuss my career for hours on end (I can’t think of anything more soul destroying, to be honest) the failure by some close to me to even acknowledge that my career exists has taken me by surprise.

The occasional text I receive is patronising or damning me with faint praise, a tightening of the face when I talk about something thrilling that has happened which lets me know the person in question has no desire to hear what I’m saying and I feel silenced, the uncertainty if someone has even bought my book, let alone read it.

It’s isolating and upsetting and so I’ve started to pull away, in order to protect myself.

My circle of friends has become smaller but truer.

I treat my time as valuable and I only spend it with those who I know to be genuine. It surprises me, when I look around at those who are left, at how unexpected the tribe is, but it gladdens me as well.

My parents, whose good humour and sense of fun are only surpassed by their unconditional love and support.

My incredible sister, her eyes bright with pride.

Anne, my second mother, barely able to contain her glee.

The neighbour who cares more about how my eating patterns are holding up than parties on yachts but who asks about both anyway.

The friend who wrote me a letter after a man broke my heart to tell me why exactly I deserved better.

The women who walked with me on the March For Choice and were utterly amused by the number of selfies I was asked to take.

I had been warned that other authors would be competitive and difficult to befriend and yet I have discovered the all too generous Marian, whom I’m still hoping will adopt me, Lisa, who sent flowers after a virulent attack by online trolls, Catherine, who bought me a bunch of balloons when I was long-listed for the International Dublin Literary Award and generally acts as my therapist/play date; and many, many more besides.

I have been lucky.

So just as failure or grief might whittle your group of friends down, show you the true colours of those around you, so too does success.

You imagine that the people you let go might take that gentle estrangement as proof that you’ve ‘changed’, that you’ve become affected, that they were right to be miserly with their praise in the first place.

I haven’t changed, I feel like saying. I’m more confident in ways, more comfortable with expressing my opinion, but I don’t feel any different.

It hasn’t impacted my level of happiness. I feel as content as I did before, maybe less so in some ways.

There are greater rewards, a level of financial security, and some exciting projects in the pipeline.

I meet artists whose work I’ve admired for years and they tell me that they’re fans of mine as well and the accompanying joy never lessens.

However, there’s greater pressure too, less time for myself and more expectations.

I need people who will cheer me on for my achievements but who will listen to me complain about the difficult aspects too.

I need people who won’t resent me for daring to sometimes struggle with a life that undoubtedly looks perfect from the outside, as if such a thing is even possible.

And I promise them that I will do the same in return.

For that’s what true friendship is about, isn’t it?

Equality. Love. Mutual support.

I need people who will cheer me on for my achievements but who will listen to me complain about the difficult aspects too


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