Romantic love is weird as a 20 year old. Some 20 year-olds haven’t had their first kiss yet, and others are getting married. But as we all know, love isn’t just about a significant other. The love I have for my family and friends is completely different from the love I have for a significant other. We don’t have to be in a relationship to know what love is. It took me a long time, but I feel like I can finally say I understand the platonic love that comes with truly valuable friendships.

I was very fortunate to have grown up in a  loving family, and grew up understanding unconditional love from my relatives. However, for the longest time, platonic unconditional love confused me. Sure, in middle school and high school I had people I considered my “best friends,” but I never told them that. I was always worried they didn’t feel the same way or that they would be embarrassed to have that label. It took me until recently to realize that I was uncomfortable labeling them because I wasn’t receiving the love a “best friend” should provide.

In middle school and high school, many people viewed me as a valuable asset. I was smart, so I could help with homework and studying. I was eager to please, so I was always one call away for a favor. I was well-spoken and athletic enough, so I was a great person to shove in the front row at dance practice or school as an ‘exemplary student.’ For the people around me, it was great! I was the person they could call on and dispose of within the hour. For a long time I didn’t notice this, but quickly learned that people talked to me more when I helped them, and slowly began to place my value in my usefulness. I did anything I could to be the first person there to solve a math problem or teach a new dance move. I didn’t mind when people didn’t talk to me after I helped them; I just assumed they were busy. 

Inevitably, I started to burn out. I was taking more challenging classes, having more dance practices, and barely had enough time in the day to eat and sleep. The things I used to enjoy became a chore. Obviously, this impeded my ability to help others out. It didn’t take long for many of the people I thought of as friends to start disappearing from my life. At first, I didn’t think much of it; I was busy enough as it was, it wasn’t like I had time to see my friends anyway. But as my mental health started to decline my junior year of high school, I realized how isolated I had become from my “friends.” My weekends consisted of mostly sleep and homework, with no messages or plans. When I was feeling my lowest, I struggled to find people who would respond to my messages reaching out. This, of course, just worsened my mental wellbeing, and I quickly began to feel more and more alone. The people who I thought loved me had left. 

There were a few people, though, that were always there for me. Even when I was isolating myself, they showed their support by sitting with me at lunch, sending me things that reminded them of me, or even giving me a quick hug before they left for class. My mind was too cloudy to realize it at the time, but looking back these few people saved me. They were there for me when I couldn’t be there for myself. 

At the time, I didn’t really know anything about conditional or unconditional love. Though looking back, it was clear that while I tried to give unconditional love to many, the love I received back was typically conditional. I was a good friend or buddy when I was useful, but as soon as I couldn’t give enough for others to take, I was useless. 

There were a lot of people in my life that loved me conditionally. Through their words or lack thereof, they indirectly told me, “I only care about you when you are fulfilling what I need from you.” But instead of looking back with sadness or anger, I’m grateful they were a part of my life. They showed me what I didn’t deserve. I am even more grateful for the few people that stuck around through my ups and downs. Even though I still sometimes struggle to accept that I deserve unconditional love, it’s comforting to know I have people in my life that always have my back. Better yet, coming to a new place, working hard in therapy, and deepening my understanding of self-love has not only taught me my own worth, but has taught me how to find others that appreciate who I am, regardless of my mental wellbeing. 

It took some time, but I feel like I finally understand unconditional love. It isn’t always about being the perfect companion. Sometimes we are unable to be the person we want to be for the people we love. But instead of leaving, they support you in the way you need because they know you’ll do the same for them when the time comes. Love is about giving and taking. You may not always be able to give as much as you take, and there will be days it feels like you are constantly giving and receiving crumbs. Yet at the end of the day, “settling up” who leans and who is the one being leaned on isn’t important. What’s important is that you lift each other up. You each grow independently, but your roots are together. 

While I still struggle with self-love and finding those who appreciate my worth, I know that no matter what, I can always find comfort and support in my friends and family. To me, that is what love is all about. 

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