By Katherine Hanson
When most people think about love, thoughts immediately go to the idea of a romantic partner. But I’d like to call attention to a love that some might argue is just as important as the love of a romantic partner: the love of your closest friend.
I’ve had the fortune of having a handful of close friendships throughout my life. I was never one to have a gaggle of girlfriends around me at all times; rather, I prefer the more calming company of one or two close friends at a time while also having many acquaintances. Each one of these strong friendships have had a comfort and an ease of understanding between us, where we could just be ourselves, and trust that we would be loved for it by the other.
Probably no other friendship in my life has been as formative or significant as my relationship with Alana.
Alana and I met in August of 2005 when we were paired as roommates within the Freshman class of swimmers at Auburn University. I had attended boarding school in high school, so I was used to the roommate arrangement and had grown accustomed to living in close quarters with new people, many of whom were from foreign countries, some of whom didn’t speak a lick of English. Alana arrived to Auburn from the Bahamas (and thankfully spoke English), and if I remember correctly it was her first time being away from home without a parent; if she was nervous she didn’t show it. There was an ease and a confidence about Alana that I had picked up right away that I was secretly envious of her for. She knew she was a badass – she didn’t need me or anyone else to confirm it for her.
Within a few weeks we were like old pals who had known each other for years; going grocery shopping together, cooking dinner together, taking turns cleaning our dorm, etc. It helped that she didn’t have a car during her first year at Auburn – she had no choice but to bum a ride with me! We quickly realized that there were only two songs that we both knew and loved which became repeat favorites on my car’s stereo: We Belong Together by Mariah Carey, and She Will Be Loved by Maroon 5. Perfectly fitting for a budding friendship, wouldn’t you think? When I think of that time in our lives, I think of us riding along in my old Volvo, driving into the unknown adventures ahead of where our lives might take us, but with each other by our side to give us comfort and security for the road ahead.
I have to give Alana a lot of credit for being the kind and patient friend she was with me. While many arrive to college fresh and ready to chart a new path, I arrived to college full of emotional baggage from my abusive childhood. Being away at boarding school had helped me to begin to identify the trauma of my past and learn how to fit the pieces of my identity back again, however I was far from healed and was still being abused when I arrived at Auburn. I was also still suffering from a long battle with an eating disorder, and struggled to identify any sort of self-worth away from swimming (which I was struggling to continue to do thanks to a newly diagnosed heart condition and repeated injuries). While I’m sure it was strange for Alana to experience someone her age with so many issues, she handled it with grace and compassion. She never once made me feel like there was something wrong with me or that I wasn’t worth enough to be her friend. I don’t think any of that mattered to her. She was just happy to be my friend, just as I was. It was probably the first time in my life that I felt loved that way. She gave me a glimpse of the kind of love that I had hoped to have for myself one day.
Something that made our friendship unique is that we both had a deep need at times to simply be left alone. Introverts at heart, we are both “disappearers”, and craved alone time to recharge and clarify our thoughts. We might go a whole day without speaking, leaving our doors closed and not engaging with each other until the needs of our first “primary relationship” had been met. Others might have taken offense to this habit that we both had, but for us it was something we inherently understood about each other.
Throughout our time at Auburn, Alana and I continued to live together and she became like family to me, and I to her. After I graduated Auburn I moved to California for work, while Alana stayed at Auburn to pursue her Doctorate. Despite the distance, our friendship never wavered, and somehow, we made it a point to see each other at least once a year, be it via flight layovers or one of us crashing a nearby family reunion. Over ten years later, and despite us living various distances from each other (I am now back in the South and she is now the one living and working in California), I still consider her a sister to this day. Whenever I’m having what I call an “oh shit!” moment in life, Alana is who I call to try to get some perspective. She has been there to toast and to celebrate every one of life’s milestones with me, as I have with her.
It has been said that our friendships and relationships are models of how we see ourselves. And in the instance of Alana, our friendship has been a model of how I want to see and love myself: with grace and compassion for all of me, including my strengths, my shortcomings, my mistakes, and my triumphs. It has been a long time coming and a battle hard-fought, but I finally have that kind of love for myself now. Our friendship is an example of how a love of a friend, and from a friend, can truly help to define and shape a life.