Yesterday I found myself in the familiar presence of people who have been pivotal in my life for 40 years. Like everyone else I now know and love, they were once strangers, going about their own lives, not knowing I existed either until our paths crossed.
Most of us were college students, enrolled in psychology, sociology and teaching programs at what once was called Glassboro State College in Glassboro, NJ. The name has since been changed to Rowan University, but it will always be GSC to me.
One of the mainstays of the school was a crisis intervention/counseling center called Together, Inc. Not sure who it was that came up with the name (since we all did spend a great deal of time together in academic, work related and social interactions) or idea in the place, but I am grateful to them, since it played such an important role in my professional and personal growth. It was where I cut my teeth on crisis counseling, family therapy and adolescent treatment. Most of the staff were volunteers who were putting their Psychology 101 to practical use. I worked there initially as a volunteer and then paid staff once I graduated.
When I look back at those days, I am amazed that I was as brazen as I was, wielding my basic skills. Now, with two degrees (BA in Psychology and Master of Social Work) and thousands of supervisory and classroom hours and PA licensure under my belt, I am actually humbler and in awe of the trust my clients place in me and the responsibility it entails to work as a psychotherapist.
My compatriots in this endeavor were dedicated to the wellbeing of our client population; some we never met, since many called the toll-free hotline, and others we saw when they showed up for counseling sessions or walked through the door of the runaway and homeless youth shelter. Some of us were not much older than the kids we took care of, so in many ways they viewed us as peers. It was also where I had the experience of staying up all night, answering crisis calls from people who were facing their demons and were looking to us to offer support and resources. It was during those times, in between calls, that life, the Universe and everything conversations took place with my co-workers/friends. We explored the nature of existence, relationships, what makes people tick, consciousness, environmental concerns, political and social activism, music, sex and spirituality. That hasn’t changed all these years later.
One memorable episode took place when a teenaged girl came in and had a seizure and then went into cardiac arrest. Three of us began CPR after 911 was called and she was revived and then I had the lovely experience of her vomiting on me. Never was I so glad to have that happen.
A more enjoyable activity was taking paint brushes and multi-hued paints and decorating the aging house that needed a bit of sprucing up. The stair railings and walls were rainbow splashed, as we let loose our creativity. I think we may have intentionally painted each other, too.
Weekends would sometimes take us to the TLA on South Street in Philadelphia to see the midnight showing of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. We didn’t just sit back and take in the movie. We were active participants, complete with costumes, makeup and props. To this day, I can still rock a mean “Time Warp.”
One of my favorite movies is The Big Chill. It tells the tale of college friends who reunite a decade or so later at the funeral of one of their group. When we watched it, we said “That will be us.” In many ways, it was. Over the years, we have seen each other through marriages, divorces, children, grandchildren, widowhood, health crises, triumphs and tribulations and the deaths of four of our friends.
One of our circle experienced a stroke 10 years ago and as a result, it brought many of us closer, since it helped us to recognize how transient life is. He was the host of our gathering that included pot-luck food, guitar and sing-along of mostly 60s-70s era music with a few more current pieces thrown in for good measure. The daughter of one of our friends who was born right after we met was there with her four children ranging from 3-11 years old. The youngest are twins. It sets my mind awhirl to reflect the passing of time and the power of enduring friendships.
According to Martin Seligman and Ed Diener, people with supportive friends are quite simply, happier. In their research paper, called Very Happy People, they affirm this. “Our findings suggest that very happy people have rich and satisfying social relationships.”
When people have a supportive social network, they tend to live longer, per a study called Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review. The authors report, “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships.
Even though life happens in between our visits which take place every few years, we celebrate life events in person when we can or from a distance if needed. Several of our friends were not able to be there with us in person, but their names were in the air. We regaled each other with “remember when…” stories.
The wedding of the daughter of one of our circle who was born after we each graduated and moved on to the next version of adulting will be happening next month and I look forward to rejoicing together.
I found myself sitting in reverie yesterday as the hands on my mental clock spun backward. These faces that now bore wrinkles and gray hair, and a few extra pounds than what we carried four decades ago belong to people who enrich my life in ways that I will never be able to measure.