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The pandemic taught me how to maintain adult friendships: Just reach out

Between Covid-19, work and all the other stressors of life, maintaining adult relationships is more difficult than I originally imagined.
Collage of tho women texting each other with a blue heart in the middle.
It has never been easy to maintain or build adult friendships, but adding a global pandemic to the mix did not make it easier.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TMRW

For four years of college, I would always end conversations with friends by saying, “I’ll see you all later.” It wasn't just a nicety, but an expectation, a promise. I would pass friends while walking to class and end up making each of us five minutes late because I just had to show them a tweet or convince them to meet me at American Deli, an Atlanta staple, later on. My favorite memories from college were the unexpected ones: the brunches that turned into late-night adventures, the study sessions that turned into karaoke sessions and all the other legendary memories that started spontaneously.

But what happens when you unknowingly say “I’ll see you later” for the last time in a long time?

I did not expect to have to face the scary beast of “adult friendships” until I was at least 25. Close proximity, frequent trips together and group chats had all of my friendships tied neatly into a strong knot — or so I thought. An international move coupled with a global pandemic quickly snipped the string, causing me to scramble to bring everything back together again.

While teaching English abroad, I was able to visit the Melaka Straits Mosque in Melaka, Malaysia.
While teaching English abroad, I was able to visit the Melaka Straits Mosque in Melaka, Malaysia.Miah Hardy

I knew that I wanted to teach English abroad after graduating in 2019. The friends who knew of this goal encouraged me to keep striving while I went through application after application. And leading up to my 10+ hour journey to Malaysia, I received a lot of messages that read, “Have fun!” “I love you!” “I will miss you!” and “We’re going to talk all the time anyway!” Before the day of my departure, I introduced my friends and family to WhatsApp with the expectation that staying in touch would be extremely easy. It's the age of constant communication, right?

When I arrived in San Francisco for my first layover, I suddenly realized how alone I was. A majority of my friends were on the East Coast and it was at least 2 a.m. there. I, of course, called my mother to let her know that I arrived at my first pit stop safely, but she could not stop yawning, understandably. I suddenly realized that this communication thing would be a lot more difficult than I realized.

I soon learned that moving to another country made it difficult to actually be a friend, in both big ways and small. I was the type of friend who would give a big congratulatory speech at a law school acceptance party or randomly treat a bestie to coffee at their go-to place, but I couldn't do those types of things anymore simply because I wasn't physically there. I went from being in the Instagram pictures to only liking them from afar. It was hard to not feel left out, even though I knew I wasn't forgotten. After all, it was my choice to go to Malaysia and life goes on at home.

My feelings of being left out and being an inadequate friend only amplified over time. I would return to my apartment after a long day of teaching English feeling exhausted — especially as a Black woman, I felt pressure to act as a representative for all African Americans back home. Nobody could understand me and I missed my friends desperately.

My students were always excited to take selfies after a long day of classes.
My students were always excited to take selfies after a long day of classes.Miah Hardy

But even so, I hesitated to reach out to them and share my most vulnerable moments over the phone. And the more time that passed, the more anxious and embarrassed I felt for not calling. I felt like a bad friend. I felt like I officially failed at “adult friendships,” and as an overachiever, I do not take failure lightly. On a random Friday, I decided to change that. I arrived early at the teacher’s lounge and called and messaged friends and family to catch up. It worked! I felt more connected with those so far away from me and I finally felt more comfortable in this new place.

As soon as I settled into living in a new country, my time was up. “We highly recommend that you leave immediately.” My heart dropped to my stomach. Amid the speculation, confusion and fear of Covid-19, I headed home to Virginia with the same feeling of uncertainty I had when traveling to Malaysia.

I've never seen a plane as empty as I did when traveling home during Covid-19.
I've never seen a plane as empty as I did when traveling home during Covid-19.Miah Hardy

Suddenly, the world stopped: You could only buy one pack of toilet paper at a time, people were fighting over hand sanitizer and thinking about how many people died or were hospitalized due to the coronavirus made me want to crawl under my covers and sob.

Cute infographics and cartoons emphasizing the importance of self-care and checking in with friends began to invade my Instagram feed. “Check in with your strong friends," headlines implored. Instead, I rolled my eyes as I dug further into my microwavable lasagna. It all felt so dismissive and, dare I say, corny.

After finally figuring out how to maintain adult friendships while living internationally, I now had to learn how to do so while my friends were forced inside their homes, facing their own version of trauma around the pandemic. Now what?

Some of my cohort members and I were able to celebrate the Chinese New Year by taking a trip to Penang.
Some of my cohort members and I were able to celebrate the Chinese New Year by taking a trip to Penang.Miah Hardy

I am not going to credit the Instagram infographics, but once I began taking care of myself, I started feeling better. And once I started reaching out again, my friendships grew stronger. One friend and I would send encouraging messages to each other from our Apple watches after workouts. My “Big Head Baddies” group chat would get a kick out of pictures of the random meals I created from whatever was left in my fridge. When I cleaned my room and found a picture of all of my sorority sisters together, I snapped a shot of it and sent a message, which ended up becoming a thread full of updates from 35 women. It all felt so easy that I wondered why I hadn't started sooner.

Adult friendships are intimidating. It is difficult to make time and space in your life for other people when you are consumed with making big decisions that feel life-changing. How can you reach out to friends when you are debating whether or not you should make a career change? What can you say to a friend when you've taken different paths and are facing different obstacles? What if you feel like you have "nothing" to say?

What I've learned is that it's never too late for a quick “hey girlie” text or to find a way to check in. It is never too late to call a friend just because they were on your mind. Life is hard, but friendships do not have to be; all you have to do is reach out.