OPINION: CP Awareness Day and the need for social consistency

Michael Friant, Contributing Writer

Imagine not seeing your friends who live in the same city for weeks, months, or sometimes even longer. You would feel like they didn’t care about you, as if you had done something that offended them or outgrown the friendship with the person. Now imagine these friends were the only ones who connect with you on a deeper than surface level. If this was your reality, you would feel really apprehensive and uncertain about your friendships. In honor of today being National Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, I am going to try to show how this is my reality in a constructive manner, so as not to offend any of my friends who might be reading this, but to also make the case as to why I need consistency in my social life.

I want to acknowledge upfront that I know that people have their own lives to live and other friendships to keep up. I don’t expect to hear from friends on a daily basis or even see them on a weekly basis, although that would feel nice. Likewise, I am aware that issues come up and plans go out the window. Anyone who knows me can attest that I am down to do something spontaneous or with little notice. Lastly, I want to stress that I am extremely grateful for the friendships that I have formed this past year or so. The last thing I want is to have people read this and perceive it negatively.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

However, I tend to spend weeks on end in my apartment without having substantial connections with friends. Now anyone who knows me might be thinking to yourself, “Well don’t you go to classes, go to Overflow, among other outings?” While, yes, I do go to these things, the interactions I have with people there are minimum at best. In the case of going to classes, I can and have attended classes with individuals over several semesters and nothing has ever come of it. If I am lucky enough, I will have a random person engage with me at one time or another. Yes, there are passing greetings which get exchanged on campus, before or after classes and so forth. As far as Overflow is concerned, it is mostly listening due to the nature of the organization. Yeah, technically I could go on Thursdays for community groups, but having grown up in a conservative household, it gets kind of old and repetitive talking about Jesus in every aspect of our lives. Let me be very clear and say that I do not have anything against anyone who has such mentality. One of the reasons why I still go to Overflow is because I genuinely care about the people there.

My speech impediment plays a huge part in how I view certain outings and how people interact with me. However, I still need that social consistency from friends that do feel comfortable around me and vice versa. As much as people assume that I am picky about whom I hang out with, I gravitate towards those who are naturally comfortable around me and do not behave weirdly around me. Before you think to yourself, “Well he should be understanding and not so harsh on people who do try and are awkward,” put yourself in my position and ask yourself if you’d want to deal with a certain aspect of your life 24/7. Socializing with friends who see me as a person rather than a disability is refreshing, reenergizing and a way for me to unplug from my reality of having a disability.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

The number of instances where I have had newer acquaintances or friends hype me up about specific activities that they claim that they want to do with me but never do or postpone for months at times is astronomical. For example, last fall I was hanging out at a social event and this guy came up and made a comment about something I posted on Instagram, and then proceeded to ask me if I wanted to go and do it again with him. Throughout the rest of the event he would ask, “Have you messaged me yet?” Ultimately, I messaged him but nothing ever materialized. Again, this is a single incident that occurs regularly. While I understand that everyone deals with people like this, for someone who has a smaller friend circle than most, these instances are more relevant in my life than in other’s.

Moreover, having that social consistency will enable me to be able to refresh more often and would be overall better for my mental health. As much as I treasure my outings with friends, the feelings of being around people and just having fun fades over time. I have become a master of sorts when it comes to convincing my mind to stay positive and that another occasion is imminent. One of the main ways I do this is by having some of my favorite moments as my screen saver on my Apple TV. Another way to stay positive is to remind myself of activities that people have said that they want to do with me. The latter one becomes harder to do as more time elapses from the initial mention. I do understand that with certain situations, circumstances play a huge role in when certain activities can occur.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

However, it doesn’t mean that staying positive isn’t really hard at times. Watching Netflix among other streaming services, going outside, occasionally listening to music, scrolling through social media and receiving digital support through likes and comments only does so much to help the loneliness. Getting text messages or messages on other platforms from individuals does help quell my anxiety about friendships being upended. As a result, there are times when I just want to curl up in a ball and sleep all day to escape the loneliness. This obviously is not good for my physical and mental health.

Furthermore, consistency in my social life will let me have more meaningful connections with people. Currently, I simply catch up with friends every time we get together. This can be exhausting because, though I may be engaging in conversations with friends, it rarely gets past superficial conversations. Friendships should equal depth over time. I’m not saying that we must share our deepest secrets every time we meet, or ever for that matter. However, when one hangs out with someone repeatedly over time, you become comfortable around them. For me, it takes a few minutes to reacquaint myself with the group. I recently reunited with a group of friends whom I had not been around for a month and a half, and while I initially felt very out of place, deep down inside I felt comfortable and elated to be with them.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

However, reuniting with friends brings an inherent sense of expectation that we would see each other again sooner than the last bout. So, when weeks go by, I get frustrated, though I don’t show it. One of the reasons why I have not brought this up in one-on-one conversations is that I am genuinely afraid that I might drive the friends that I have away, or that I am being unreasonable. When one, like myself, doesn’t have many friends who actually do things with you, you tend to be very careful about how you approach things such as this. In a sense, writing this article is a risk.

Moreover, having consistency in my social life will enable me not to view events through certain lenses. For example, going bar hopping or to a house party might not be too ideal for me, but having the assurance that I will see the same people again relatively soon, or having moments on a regular basis to reminisce about would help me avoid feelings of loneliness during those events that aren’t designed for people with disabilities. I will be the first to admit that there have been moments at house parties and at bars that I have enjoyed. I guess I am trying to convey that just going to these things isn’t socially fulfilling when they are the primary hang out activities. This is due to a number of factors, such as not being able to consume huge amounts of alcohol due to my disability, my speech impediment and others. I don’t expect you reading this to feel bad for me, or even to accommodate me in every situation.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

Just as physical and social consistency are important, digital communication consistency is necessary as well. The number of times when I text someone about something and do not get a response for days is off the charts. While digital communication is not the primary way that typical able-bodied people communicate, texting someone is my equivalent of calling someone. So, for me not to get a response from the individuals for days at times is frustrating for me. When this occurs, I wonder what I did to be ignored or if the friendship is still intact. Imagine if you call someone or reach out to someone and you don’t get an answer for days, in some cases. I do understand that there will be delays, and that is totally understandable. Again, like with the outings, I have become a master of sorts at quelling my mind when I do not get a response from someone for days, but it does become difficult at times.

Lastly, I don’t appreciate being left out of activities. I know that I have a disability and that everything cannot be accommodating for me, and I am okay with that. For example, my experience of going to the beach looks different than a typical able bodied person’s experience would be. I can’t stay in the water the whole time without assistance. However, I still would rather be on the beach in the company of friends instead of just sitting at home. Another area that I feel like people don’t include me in as often as possible is going out and drinking, due to feeling like they have to be a designated driver. Again, I would rather contribute to a shared Uber ride or get a separate Uber ride rather than staying home in my apartment.

Photo courtesy of Michael Friant.

Having highlighted my reality of being socially isolated for long periods of time and my need for social consistency, I challenge you to put yourself into my shoes. Try to imagine yourself not seeing friends regularly, being alone in your apartment for weeks on end, dealing with friends or acquaintances not following through with what they say, not getting responses for digital communication in a timely manner and having to rely primarily on a screen for social fulfillment. At the end of the day, we all are social beings that crave and need continuous social interactions from friends.