Stories of Our Neighbors: Thank You For Being a Friend
Podcaster Janeen Ellsworth helps women build meaningful connections.
Loneliness is an epidemic amid a pandemic, says U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. The risk of mortality from loneliness, Murthy says, equals smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It exceeds the risk of obesity. In his book “Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World,” Murthy writes: “While loneliness has the potential to kill, connection has even more potential to heal. Some of the oldest medicines we have — love and compassion — can be deployed by everyone.” Enter Janeen Ellsworth and “Women Friends,” the podcast/social network she launched in September to help women build deeper friendships. The motto: “Let’s vanquish loneliness together.”
Ellsworth, 45, lives in Bloomfield with her husband, Andrew, and their two children, a 10-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. A year into the pandemic, Ellsworth, like many women, left the workforce. But the pressures of caring for family, and the isolation brought on by the pandemic, made her realize something essential was missing.
“True friendship is vital to our survival,” Ellsworth says, “now more than ever.”
I started “Women Friends” from total burnout. When school went remote, it laid an enormous responsibility on parents.
At the time, I had an awesome copywriting job — tons of work, amazing support. But I stopped functioning. By spring 2021, I had no more words. My kids needed help with schoolwork. My parents were at varying degrees of health crises. Something had to give, and it was the job. I had nothing left.
At the time, I was listening to all kinds of podcasts. I became enamored with the platform.
That summer, when we had a little freedom, it hit me how isolated I’d made myself. I’d bypassed any opportunity for friendship or connection.
Then one of my sisters told me about her sacred Sunday morning walk with her girlfriend. She had another walk with another friend on Wednesdays. And I was like, “How did you find these people?”
I didn’t know who I’d call to go for a walk.
To make things clearer, my daughter started having trouble with her bestie. I heard myself giving terrible advice, like, “Kick her to the curb.” And I thought, ‘Wow. That’s unhealthy.’
Why did I devalue friendship so much? Why did I think I could get through life on my own?
I had a bestie growing up, but otherwise it was just my sisters and me. I’m the youngest of four girls. Growing up like that, you feel you don’t need anybody else. I didn’t learn why I might need friends.
Then my parents divorced. I was in seventh grade when we moved. My sixth-grade friends lived in a nicer part of town. None of their parents were divorced. Suddenly, I wasn’t welcome.
Finally, by ninth grade, I found a friend group I thought was safe. Then I learned they were going to the mall together, going to movies on the weekend without inviting me. I pretended I didn’t know.
The day before Christmas break, they had orchestrated a gift exchange for one another. I came to the lunch table with my tray of grilled cheese, and I froze. There was a stack of presents in front of each of them. They ignored me. I had nobody else to eat with, so I sat down. I can remember them opening sweaters and CDs and teddy bears while I kept trying to eat. Then the toughest girl from our class walked by and said, “Man, that’s messed up.”
A girl I always was afraid would beat me up validated me. She felt compassion, even. Eventually I got involved in choir and artsy stuff. I found my people there.
I started the podcast as a creative outlet, as a way to see if other women were feeling what I was feeling or if I was alone in this. Now I want to be a megaphone for women who find friendship difficult, who don’t feel safe enough to share what’s going on in our hearts.
I think friendship is mostly about self-worth. When we’re not comfortable in our own skin, we can’t share who we really are. I was talking with another woman who said, “Guys punch each other and move on. But with women, it’s complicated.” There’s a fear of judgment, of letting your vulnerabilities show.
The pandemic has allowed us to take stock and decide who to spend our precious time with. But the flip side is, are those people going to be available? Was I so stuck in my own head I couldn’t be there for them?
We’re all overrun with obligations. People talk about self-care, like “Light a candle. Take a bath.” That’s not it.
Friendship is real self-care.
When the pandemic hit, one woman — the mother of all extroverts — sent a text to me and 19 other parents from our kids’ school — all moms except for one dad. Next thing, my phone was lighting up. Jokes, memes. At first, I thought it was annoying. I thought, “My god, how do these people have time for this? Don’t they work?” But later they became a great comfort. I realized they were all drowning, too.
I know it’s silly. It’s just texts. But it’s astounding how that little connection can be so life-affirming. It makes you feel part of the world.
Find Out More: Read about the Women Friends project at: women-friends.com
Lori Jakiela is the author of the memoir “Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe” and several other books. She lives in Trafford and directs the Creative and Professional Writing Program at Pitt-Greensburg. For more, visit: lorijakiela.net
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