I travel in circles that prioritize “chosen family.” Several of us are estranged from one or both of our parents, the rest fled for the usual crimes — queer, young and hopeful. Some came on pilgrimage and stayed, the rest of us sheltered in the first house that would take us in. Chosen families, like biological families, often revolve around romantic love being the most important. Partnerships and coupling focus on the unit, and it’s hard to picture love as important as spouses with people you have no intention of marrying. Brian is my chosen family. I don’t know how we picked each other. We failed at dating, and relaxed into a platonic intimacy that feels more like love than the odes I’ve read. Which is how I ended up holding him on the floor of my apartment, rocking him, as his body sweat and he shook from DT’s. This is what I know about love: the platonic variety is the only kind that’s worth anything because we don’t expect to get anything out of it.
I usually roll my eyes when people talked about others as “like a sister” or “like a brother.” Brian isn’t my brother, he’s something else, and watching his body and mind break over and over again made me quieter, softer, more desperate. The sort of love you slip under the door, giving the receiver the option to ignore it.
“You shouldn’t have to take care of me,” he said. He was drunk, again. He was drunk so often I stopped remembering what he had been like when he was sober. I knew there had to be a time, and I missed it. Talking to him made me feel drunk. “I don’t want you to have to do this.”
When I arrived in California, Brian was just an internet friend. I was fleeing the first two years out of college graduation, where I’d lived in the woods, gone through a break up, and felt completely invisible. We met up when I got to Oakland, and the ease of digital communication continued. He was sober, until he wasn’t. And then he really wasn’t. More and more of our phone calls were him assuring me that he loved me and me begging him to not kill himself. I chose to try to save him.
I knew people who drank too much. I knew people who had gotten sober. I’d never seen anyone withdraw before. We were talking every day, multiple times a day, so I could make sure he was still breathing. He wouldn’t remember things we did, or things we said, and he’d get scared and freak out. I practiced speaking calmly so I didn’t make things worse.
If he were “more than a friend,” there would have been all this future to reconcile with. Brian and I aren’t going to have children, fall madly in love, or have to break up. I can just love him for him, and I can try to keep him alive with pure intentions. My perception of the gift of love has changed; I can’t force him into sobriety. But I can press my face into the phone when he calls, hoping he can feel how solid I am. I’m not worried if he’ll “pay me back,” and I’m not concerned about keeping score. I just want to love him enough so that it’s easier for him to believe he’s worth loving.
My friends’ chosen families fall apart when love dies, just like real families, but instead of being related by blood or circumstance, we just have people we don’t talk to anymore. Divorces and breakups and falling outs splinter our small factions, just like with non-chosen families. Romantic love is precious, and therefore costly. Deep, profound friendship is considered lesser and abundant. There’s no goal attached to it, which is why I can take his calls and hold him as he assures me that I shouldn’t help him. Because I love him and I want him to be well. I don’t need him as a partner, I need him as a person that I have chosen, as a member of my team.
My friendship with Brian has given me love that I don’t have to make about partnering. I don’t have to be pragmatic, sensible, or anticipate the future. I can take his calls, visit him in rehab, and send him books without worrying what it means for us, without every choice being laden with symbolism. I worry what it means for him. I’ve become a better caregiver and a better listener. I have seen addiction for what it is: an illness.
Chosen family isn’t really chosen — it’s luck and timing. Brian isn’t my soulmate, here to heal my dented heart. We won’t build wealth or have children together. He’s just a person I’m going to keep for as long as I can. I had more to give because I didn’t need anything from him. I didn’t need him to love me or take care of me, I just wanted him to stay alive.
Lauren Parker is a Berkeley community member who won the Daily Californian’s Summer of Love Essay competition.