There are many things I love about myself; my acerbic wit, my willingness to admit when I’m wrong and the fierce protectiveness I have for the women who have loved and protected me. My friendships are in many ways, the crown jewel of my life. I have had different people come in and out of my life and whether the split was acrimonious or not, they have taught me something. I have acquaintances that I really appreciate and care for but the word ‘friend’ is not one I use lightly. All of my friends have features that I wish I had. My tiniest friend is unapologetically self-indulgent. She adores luxury and makes no apologies. She has absolutely no interest in ‘slumming it’ and has encouraged me to be the same. She’s unrelatable. Roll your eyes at her and remark about how bougie and spoilt she is and she’ll reply ‘I know’ in a kittenish purr, one beautiful eyebrow perfectly arched. My second tiniest friend is fiercely independent and fires off lightning rounds of insults which are both shocking and incredibly funny. She loves to poke fun at heterosexual men’s exhaustive list of ‘gay’ behaviour and is quick to point out the homoerotic undertones of black men’s relationship to their barbers. She even casually decimates the idea of teen girls’ ‘hysterical’ support for their favourite boy bands when these same men are known to have emotional breakdowns when their favourite football team doesn’t perform as expected.
Then I have two friends who are effortlessly cool and creative. One oozes a casual acceptance of sexuality that cannot be taught, a la Grace Jones and Rihanna. Everyone around them is hopelessly drawn into their orbit. The one lesson they have taught me is that in order to live your own life on your own terms, you must do away with the need to explain yourself to others. Those who understand you are enough. If we’re talking about being the embodiment of ‘living your best life’ then my friend who lives in Atlanta would be it. With an amazing job, a seemingly endless roster of men at her disposal, she’s another example of a person who lives her life on her own terms. How other people feel about her has nothing to do with her. She travels as much as she can and takes amazing pictures along the way. My other high school friend that lives with her on the surface seems like such a traditional type of Nigerian woman. The type of woman we are taught to be by meddling aunties, blustering pastors, and well-meaning but nosy work colleagues. The type of woman who isn’t supposed to say too much, agree with her husband in all things and brook no argument with him. Basically the ‘good’ Nollywood wife in practically all films from the 1980s till present day. Get to know her though, and she’s nothing like that. She has hidden depths full of wisdom, intelligence, and sometimes brutal honesty. What you see is not what you get in this case. I have a friend who is pure unadulterated sweetness in human form. Endlessly, cheerful with a seemingly endless ability to forgive, she has given me the gift of generosity. True bravery is the ability to be kind, open and giving in a world that constantly tries to stamp out such qualities from us. Any nastiness she has faced which would harden the average person has only made her that much more generous and lovely. A true gift to me, and I love her fiercely.
My other friend, the first I made when I started university has the amazing endowment of being able to make connections with all types of people. She knows people everywhere; hospitals, schools, restaurants…you name it. Her mind is like a map. She hasn’t met a city in which she cannot conquer the layout. Give her two weeks and she knows every avenue, street, park, walkway and major landmark there is. She never forgets a name or a face. Soon after we met she took me quickly as a sister. Whatever she got for herself, she got for me. She would buy enough food to stock up our apartment without any mention of reimbursement. In those cold days of winter, she’d cook large pots of peppery efo laden with beef and shaki and regale me with stories of her childhood, peppered with imitations of her mother’s fiery prayers.
All of these women have helped to mould and shape me into the person that I am today and who I will be in the future. However, there is one friend that I have a particular relationship with. It is not any less more important or consequential than the others. However, it is different in so many ways. She and I have remained close even though at times it seems like our paths have diverged. As children we were inseparable. If I wasn’t dodging her aggressive, snarling dogs in her house, then she was at mine, poring over books in my living room. For nearly 10 years we would get ourselves all types of gifts, normally books with different messages written in the front. Needless to say, for just about all the defining moments of my childhood from the age of 9 and upwards, she was there. A part of them somehow. Anytime I see her siblings I’m shocked by how much they’ve grown, my affection for her is only exceeded by my affection for her mother. Despite all this, there had been a growing distance between us. Very seldom in life can you truly pinpoint the exact moment the change in how you view yourself but I have been blessed it seems with the exact date when it comes to mine. We were at Nike art gallery when Nike herself to attend to the guests, including myself. She complimented a woman’s dress, answered questions relating to a particular art piece and discussed different adire making techniques. Soon she moved over to us and I distinctly remember her fawning over my friend’s looks before casting a somewhat pitiful glance over at me. I highly doubt anyone from that day remembers any of this but I do. For me, it cemented my status as a duckling never to unfurl into anything else, at least physically.
OK, maybe I’m being slightly dramatic, but it hurt and it hurt a lot. It wasn’t the lack of a compliment it was the feeling of being compared to my friend. What’s worse is that it had become something that I internalized. From that day on, there was a splinter inside me. It became the obstacle that I couldn’t move past. Everything just seemed to come so easily for her. All the things I struggled with. From maths to men. At a certain point whenever she came back home for Christmas or Easter I avoided going out with her; I assumed since I’m comparing myself to her, everyone else must be as well. If I called her and she didn’t pick up I jumped to the furthest possible conclusion; that she didn’t want to be friends anymore. Eventually, all of this came to a head. During Christmas two years we had a huge fight concerning her flaking on me. I really kicked up a fuss. I even put up a black screen on Snapchat complaining about her subliminally. Looking back on it, I am filled with shame. Not just because I couldn’t sort out my issues with one of my oldest friends maturely, but because she had been going through some health issues and perhaps if I had taken my head out of my ass to look into her odd behaviour which included going dark on social media for months at a time I would have realised that. I failed to realise that just because the albatrosses on my neck was different did not mean she didn’t have one too. I had let my own insecurities and petty issues get in the way of being a good friend. I didn’t have this epiphany immediately though. It took seeing a therapist after having suicidal ideations for me to catch on.
Last year, my mental health took a firm turn for the worse. Sitting in the therapist’s office with the air conditioner too cold and my jeans too loose, we slowly unravelled the knot of my ache. Many things had brought me to that leafy office in Ikoyi and one of the biggest dilemmas was my relentless need to compare myself to other people who I thought had everything I needed. It wasn’t so much I wanted to be this friend, but I thought if I was more like her I’d be happier; skinnier, prettier, more popular. I truly believed that if I was more like a swan and less like a duck I’d live the life I desperately desired and deserved. It’s possible that my friendship with her has taught me the most invaluable gift of all: comparison is truly the thief of joy.
Now we are here. In a new year, but for me it’s more than that. It’s a start of a new life for me. I still struggle with the overwhelming need to present a facade of perfection that doesn’t exist, but I also know I no longer need to stay in that space. This episode in my old life taught me something and brought a particular pain that I have been able to shed like dead skin, to be brushed away from the rooms of my mind. I learned to cut the parts of myself and my friendship that were harming me so I could grow. So I could be the swan I always was.