The first time I recognized there was something wrong with our friendship was when you were complaining about a girl from your class. She was loud and dramatic and attention seeking, you told me; she was overrated and irritating and tried too hard to seem cool. Negative opinion after negative opinion, all listed out in derision. “I hate everybody like that,” you told me. Then your eyes flickered to mine. “Well, except you.”
It felt like you jammed a screwdriver into one of my heart valves and I was starting to bleed out. But, no, I was still alive. I blinked once, twice, three times, but you stared back with that same blank expression and said no more. So we moved on from the topic, but I never forgot about it.
Of course, it wasn’t actually the first time you’d done something like that — it was just the first time I had noticed. People tell me now they saw it coming from a mile away. They just never thought to tell me.
Maybe I should’ve seen it coming, too. I remember you used to act like I was stupid because my college major was “easy”. I remember you used to trash talk my other friends until I started to feel weird hanging out with them. If I ever did anything you didn’t approve of, you wouldn’t talk to me for days until I promised I’d never do something like it again. They were all glaring red flags, but everything’s clearer in hindsight, isn’t it?
But I didn’t see it coming until it was too late. You made everyone hate me and I never figured out why. You called me your best friend but when your friends from class would see me, they’d quickly turn their heads; your boyfriend always scowled whenever we ran into one another. I knew you had said something to them, but instead of confronting you about it, I internalized it. After all, what if you were just telling them the truth? What if there were things that were so awful about me that it made people not want to get to know me at all? My fears seemed legitimate, because by then, you had made me hate myself, too.
Later, when you broke up with your boyfriend, he found me and apologized. He said he knew he shouldn’t have believed the things you said, but he had anyway.
“What do you mean?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “You’re not who she says you are,” he told me.
Later that night, when no one else was around, I cried so hard my throat was raw and my chest felt unbearably heavy. It was the first time it had really clicked: I, too, had believed all the things you had said about me for years. The good, the bad, but especially the ugly. For as long as I remember, I had let you twist and manipulate my emotions and actions without ever putting up a fight. I was in the midst of an abusive relationship, except it wasn’t with a significant other — it was with my best friend.
Coming to terms with the fact that someone you love is toxic isn’t easy. It’s hard to distinguish the person who builds you up from the person who tears you down. Because you weren’t always terrible to me. The person who called me weak was also the person who filled my bedroom with congratulatory notes whenever I accomplished something great. The person who tore down my confidence was also the person who would viciously attack anyone who tried to tear me down, too. It was a confusing mixture of good and bad, a tangle of healthy and toxic habits I couldn’t always separate from one another. So what were you? Good or bad?
You were both, I realize now. Aren’t we all? But just because someone is good sometimes doesn’t mean it completely overshadows all the times they’re bad. It was time for me to stop using the good part of you to make excuses for the bad part of you. And so I ended the friendship. I walked away. It wasn’t until I had distanced myself from you that I realized I had spent our entire friendship holding my breath. I never knew how badly I’d wanted it to end until I felt the relief wash over me.
But it’s hard to explain that to someone who’s never been in the situation. When I say the words “abusive relationship”, people think of a romantic partnership. When someone puts it in the context of a friendship, it doesn’t always make sense to everyone. But the fact of the matter is that any type of relationship can be toxic if it isolates, manipulates, or hurts you. Don’t let people invalidate that. It’s okay to call it what it is: abusive. It’s okay to walk away when you recognize it.
The last time I ran into you, you quickly turned your head, just like your friends used to do whenever they saw me. But unlike then, I didn’t feel bad about it anymore. Because this time, I knew it wasn’t because I was a terrible person, or because I was too annoying or attention seeking to get to know, or because I was not worth looking at at all. I was done believing in the shit you used to feed me. Despite everything you’d done to me, I was learning to love myself again.