(Friend Request)

How 'Sanity Walks' With A Stranger Saved Me During Lockdown

It takes effort.

As an only child, my friends have always been the siblings I never had. They’ve been my emergency contacts, the first to rush to my aid in crises big and small. It was a friend who escorted me, puffy and delirious, from my wisdom teeth extraction and brought me mashed potatoes in bed. When I found myself boarding an airplane without my cell phone, it was a friend who let herself into my apartment, hunted around, and overnighted it to me. My friends have celebrated milestones, unpacked career dilemmas, and offered all manner of support. So when the pandemic found me without my support system and forced me to make new friends, I was certainly out of my element.

When a state of lockdown descended upon NYC in March 2020, it changed the shape of everything, and my relationships were no exception. One by one, I watched as my beloved companions moved away. Some returned to the towns they came from, to be near family or cut back on costs. Others fast-forwarded their timelines, settling in the places they expected to land further down the road. In all cases, I understood their decisions. And we still had texts and video calls. But it wasn’t the same.

One particularly low and lonely day, I noticed a neighbor, Dee, sharing images of an outing on social media. “Sanity walk!” she wrote, next to a photo of an eerily empty park. We had never hung out before, had never really spoken beyond exchanging pleasantries. But I immediately fired off a response.

“Let me know if you ever want company!”

“How about tomorrow?” she replied.

The next morning, I got up early to squeeze in our walk before the workday. It was unlike me to rise with the sun, even more so to fraternize with strangers (I tend toward introversion). But unprecedented times call for unprecedented measures.

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On the surface, our pairing might seem unexpected. There is a decade between us, and unlike most of my friends, who I’ve met through school or work or shared connections, our trajectories don’t have much in common. I grew up in a New Jersey suburb, she grew up in a tiny European village. Dee is long married, while at the time, that level of commitment eluded me. But on our first outing, as we walked and talked, divulging our concerns, complaints, dreams, and desires, we uncovered the kind of shared commonalities that solid alliances are based on.

I’ve always aspired to the tell-all friendships I saw modeled in shows like Sex and the City and Insecure. (Despite the romance and career dramas, it was always the fashion and the friendship that kept me tuning in.) For a while, life imitated art. But as the years ticked by, and friends formed allegiances to partners and families, I found this to be less and less true. I missed those candid days of whispered confessions and shared vulnerabilities, often wondering if other people felt the way I did.

On sanity walks, nothing is off limits. Like the mental health version of a trip to Vegas, what is discussed there, stays there. It is an airtight container for troubles, stresses, and anxieties — a bit like therapy, but the sharing is mutual, and sometimes we stop for snacks.

We walked in the humid height of summer. We walked in the freezing cold, struggling to hear one another through layers of hats and hoods and face masks. We walked through change and loss and challenges, sharing all the way. What started as a pandemic necessity has blossomed into a beloved weekly ritual, and we’ve kept it going to this day.

Thanks to the success of sanity walks, I’ve become a bit more daring when it comes to making new friends — sending messages to people I admire, sometimes meeting and talking face-to-face. Much like dating, not every invitation will lead anywhere, nor will every outing. But I’ve found it is always worth it.

When Jean Paul Sartre wrote, “I am seen; therefore I am,” he was definitely not talking about friendship. But it’s the most apt description that I’ve seen. I maintain there is nothing more affirming, more healing, more miraculous than when someone sees you — the real, unedited, vulnerable you — and loves you for it. And when they trust you enough to share their real self back.

If there’s anything the past two years have taught me, it’s that our connections — from the deepest conversations to tangential interactions at the corner store — count for a lot. They are nothing less than shared humanity. Making new friends as an adult can be challenging, but as one who is always open to it, I promise it’s not impossible. Keep your eyes open for new connections, and as they’ve been telling potential suitors for decades, don’t be afraid to make the first move. You might be surprised.