I received a message earlier this morning and that familiar feeling of dread swelled up in my chest. I walked the same way to the park where I climbed my first tree, and waited for her, like always. There was smoke in the air, as there always has been. I looked through the translucent haze to find her sitting next to me. I held my breath and wondered how much time she had. There are no answers to news like this, you are not supposed to say anything-or so I’d like to think. But still, I looked to the cracked grass for a response and my feet trusted it to say what I could not.
When you meet them, you are young, shy, curious, and stuck in an old place with new people. You have no understanding of yourself, so you loiter around the halls of a school, looking for someone who might show you who you are. And then, you meet that person. They are charismatic and witty, and you long so badly to be just like them. Just as bold, just as sure.
Friends that you may have had all your life seem dull in comparison. Maybe they watch too much television, like your family, and they don’t quite seem to exist, you will tell yourself. You will say to your family, “I think they bring out the best in me.” And you honestly mean it. But day by day you falter in their shadow, feeling like a sidekick, without realizing that you’re doing the same to them.
Things happen innocently enough, as competition between friends often goes, and it will be years before you realize how dangerous it was. You are their biggest fan, and they would do anything for you. Your family and old friends worry that you two are becoming too attached to each other, but you don’t care. You’ll fall apart when their stabilizers increase, and look for the free spirit you used to know. Your skin twists at the sight of you and you wonder if theirs does too.
You will become smaller and smaller, as they begin to lose themselves in newer smokes and you will learn the hard way what it feels like to be hungry. The two of you will share your newfound smallness with a ritualistic sense of pride. You are acceptable now, but your skin doesn’t feel quite as warm as it used to. You look for new outlets; for some new validation. You look for someone who is in a darker place than you, and the two of you see it as a project. You heal the boys, one by one, and feel better. Then, someone breaks. It could be you, or it could be them, but the foil burns and neither of you know how to put it out.
You resent them for it. They are not who they performed, but maybe you knew it all along. You begin to think of love as something that holds you back. You neglect to pack it with you, and leave it to fester on your old guitar case where you last left your imagination. Tired, demanding, hungry, you exchange it for the comfort of your ambition.
So you move far away from them, into a big rich city and tell yourself how “good this is going to be for you.” You tell yourself what happened was not your fault, you say it again and again until you can’t hear it anymore, like the mantra of a parent whose child has run away.
Years pass. You don’t see them much, but exchange small talk on social media. Everything is going well with them, you assume, and you wonder why you aren’t close with them anymore. After the few years you spent incapacitated by their presence, you have finally become your own person, but still feel a dreadful loneliness that you didn’t have with them.
Eventually, you oblige to meet with them, hoping that perhaps a change of setting, newer people, and potential for ambition would have allowed them to thrive, as you are convinced you have. To your dismay, you discover that they are more broken and ill than they were before, and you wonder how you failed to recognize a friend in need. You will hate yourself for it, but they have forgiven you.
That’s the thing about mental illnesses. For some, they come and go in waves, like a fever dream. You won’t be able to articulate how it felt, and you may try to write it off as something restricted to your adolescence. For some, it never really goes away and may become amplified with physical illness. Perhaps there are no toxic friends, but maybe the combination of two people with the same insecurities, at the wrong time is what can make for a toxic situation. Sometimes, it is best to let go of people who bring you down, and you must always recognize when it is at a level of abuse. A friend that hurts you is not a friend. But when a friend hurts themselves and you begin to do the same, the situation is more nuanced. Some time away from them is necessary for healing, and perhaps you can heal enough to help them. Please take my story with a grain of salt.