Jo Cotterill: Putting friendship first

By Jo Cotterill

As a child, I often thought that other children were a bit stupid. It wasn’t that I didn’t like them; I just didn’t understand them. More to the point, I didn’t see why I should make an effort to understand them. Why didn’t everyone see things the same way I did?

Most baffling was the ability everyone had to hide things. Why couldn’t people just say how they felt or what they needed? The world would be a lot easier to navigate. I quite often said how I felt – which wasn’t always appreciated – and if I wasn’t allowed to say it, the expression on my face did just as well.

I had good friends (mostly) and I enjoyed school (mostly) but people still remained a mystery. I felt most at home with other creative types: I went to dancing lessons, drama club, orchestra, and I gained huge enjoyment from being among like-minded people. But none of these things, however much I liked them, could live up to the satisfaction and sense of belonging I got from books.

I read a lot of books. I took them everywhere. I recall sitting and reading at a magnificent Roman site somewhere in Europe. My father, an archaeologist, was trying to tell us about life in this amazing historical place – and all I wanted to do was read my book. Climb a mountain? Sure, but only if I can read whenever I sit down. In fact, if you can strap a book to my head so that I can read while walking, I’ll go through life like that, thanks.

I gained a lot from reading. But I think I maybe missed out quite a bit by not making more of an effort to connect with other people. I wasn’t the friend other kids came to for help or advice. If asked, of course I would help. But if you were feeling a bit down, or something had happened at home and you were miserable – I probably wouldn’t notice. I didn’t sense atmosphere. I couldn’t easily tell how other people were feeling underneath. I wasn’t empathetic. And now I wonder how good a friend I was, without that very vital skill.

It’s taken me years to realise that feelings are just as valid as thoughts. And within my current circle of friends, I notice how damaging the opposite assumption can be. Children who grow up believing that their feelings are not important turn into adults who feel lonely without knowing why. Children who aren’t able to ask for help – or even to recognise that they need help – turn into adults trapped into behaviour patterns that make them unhappy. Children who aren’t allowed to express “negative” emotions like sadness, anger or fear turn into adults who feel overwhelmed with responsibilities and a sense of shame that they can’t cope. I was lucky to be born into a family where my feelings were heard and supported, and I felt I belonged. I may have felt like a square peg in a round hole in the wider world, but I was able to ask for help – and receive it. Many children aren’t.

In my latest book A Library of Lemons, 10-year-old Calypso has become used to the idea that she must “find her inner strength”. Since her mother died, her father has become emotionally and socially withdrawn, and Calypso finds herself responsible for the cleaning and laundry, as well as making sure her father eats regular meals. In the UK, it’s estimated that there are nearly 200,000 children aged 5-17 who look after one or more parents in this way.

Calypso finds a friend – a kindred spirit of her own – in Mae, who shares her love of books but crucially has an emotionally secure home. This friendship has a miraculous effect on Calypso, providing her with a sense of well-being and security that she hadn’t even known she was missing.

Our society places a lot of value on achievements. But I am beginning to realise, at the age of 40, that the ability to reach out to other people, to hear them and value them, and in return to be able to share one’s own fears and insecurities, is more valuable than any level, qualification or prize. Good friendship can support, heal and rescue – and if I were in charge of education, I would want “friendship” to be on the curriculum. Perhaps then we would have fewer anxious and lonely children growing up into anxious and lonely adults.

A Library of Lemons by Jo Cotterill is out now, published by Piccadilly Press.

Via © Guardian News and Media 2016