It Takes Two to Be Toxic

For years I had a friend who needed me so much I spent more time on her problems than I did on my own. Chatting with her was easier than working on my book because I didn't love the writing process then. My cultish devotion to her well being made me believe that I was a good friend, with the added bonus of an escape from the self doubt that suffocated me during my showdowns with blank pages. She would message me with whatever life or death situation of her own making and get angry if I didn't think someone was out to get her. (Full disclosure: I was pretty mentally ill myself at that time and would also oscillate between the belief that someone was omg the most amazing person I'd ever met or just pure movie villain evil hellbent on making me miserable. I know now that this is some seriously unhealthy bullshit.)

There were times I placated this friend by agreeing with her, even when she was being unreasonable, because she was so wounded and chronically ill I was afraid to hurt her. During the workday I'd receive an onslaught of messages from her, oftentimes talking smack about our mutual friends. Her complaints and criticisms filled my headspace. Twice, she called me right before I went to sleep in a state of agitation, demanding attention, going on about how no one was there for her, laying on the guilt. It was never an emergency, but I always felt bad telling her no, so I always let her have my time. I was a ride-or-die BFF, no matter what, especially if we were drinking together. She needed to be a victim, and I needed to play Captain Save-a-Ho.

Let's be clear: I was not a good friend. I was not offering true kindness that gave her space her to grow. Rather, I was an enabler. My blind support was allowing her self-destructive behaviour to fester. So really, I was aspartame, a slow-acting poison that seems sweet but isn't the real thing. For the longest time I didn't understand why I fell so easily into this dynamic. Why did I feel the need to be responsible for her, to help her fix her life even though I was a raging mess? When I think about it, the first time we met we got along because she seemed familiar. I was so comfortable in her presence. She felt like family, which in hindsight is a problem because my relatives are working through trauma, abuse, mental health issues, and addiction. Some family members mistake meanness for a sense of humour, and sometimes I mistake this cruelty for love.

***

I had lunch with P the other day. We hadn't seen each other in two years because a few weeks after we last met, he was struck by a mystery illness before he was to start a dream job in academia. Like me, he's managing a roster of integrated healthcare professionals, but whatever he's going through has been much more debilitating. Rather than bounding around the front of a classroom with his usual enthusiasm, he's had to deliver his lectures seated. He used to go running, but now even short walks can be taxing.

We met at a cafe where the owner gave us extra food and shared that his daughter was a singer songwriter who had left Canada for Europe because she'd had a rough childhood. We listened to one of her songsit was the only time there was music playing during the three hours we were thereand her voice was at once powerful and vulnerable.

 

While we ate, I discovered that P was also struggling with setting boundaries on helping other people.

"It's hard for me to ask for help. I have a lot of shame around it," he told me. If someone sought his support, he dropped what he was doing to be of service because he imagined it was just as difficult for that person to make the request. I told him this wasn't always the case. Some people go through their lives expecting others to take care of them, to clean up their messes, to bring order to their world.

We had so much to say because we didn't have to edit ourselves. We're aware that health stories bore the shit out of healthy people, so we don't usually detail the systems we've devised to manage each day. He shared that he was able to write for the first time in weeks. I told him what it was like to stop drinking and listed all my strange new food allergies. We're so attuned to our bodies now we didn't shy away from detailing our bowel movements. Whatever shame I had about shitting evaporated the moment I had to produce a fecal sample, collect it in a specimen container that had a tiny built-in scoop, and deliver it via a subway ride within a three-hour window for a lab test. Pretty much every topic we brought up became a source of hilarity.

"What the fuck, I've been doing affirmations," I confessed. "I am healthy! I approve of myself! I am a lottery winner!"         

"This morning, I thanked the sun for shining," he said.

We started laughing so hard. We'd gone full woo and there was nothing to do but embrace this unexpected change in our lives.

Before we left so I could go to my acupuncture appointment, the owner told us we were honourable people. "Why do I know this?" he said. "See that over there?" He pointed to the liquor store across the street and told us that he'd had an alcohol problem for more than thirty years, but that Jesus had released him from all that. He hugged us. I thought of his daughter, living in Europe, singing her songs about love while her husband sang backup.

After this, for the first time ever, I bought a lottery ticket.

***

One day three years ago I decided to do some research on codependency. I'd heard that word before, but I had no idea what it meant. This is how I discovered Melody Beattie's Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself, which is the seminal book about the Captain Save-a-Ho Syndrome and how to change.

I have never cried so much while reading than I have as I worked through Codependent No More. Though I've never lived with an alcoholic, I was a textbook codependent because my family was rife with compulsive disorders. Rather than face my own problems and care for myself, I avoided conflicts and life by putting other people first. I'd been trained to believe that this made me a good person.

It became apparent to me that I was responsible for creating the conditions for my unhealthy friendships because I thrived on emergencies. I knew how to calm suicidal and depressed women, but I didn’t know how to find this peace for myself. All of this dramatic bullshit got in the way of writing. What scared me most was the realization that I serially befriended a certain type of woman who reminded me of my mother: I was trying to work out my issues with her through these friendships. This was a pure wtf lightbulb-over-my-head moment.

Last year, I received a text from my wounded friend. She said needed to talk to me very urgently because she'd had a traumatic experience with one of our mutual friends. I told her I was unable to Skype (because I didn't have the emotional energy to speak to her on a work night) but out of guilt I said she could text me.

Why didn't I trust my gut? As soon as she had my attention, she insisted on telling me something I'd specifically told her I did not want to know, a poisonous piece of information relating to the heartbreak I'd suffered a few months earlier. As the messages came through, the subtext was I wasn't so special, that I'd been used, that I should be as angry as she was at our mutual friend. Every text she sent me was designed to be as hurtful as possible under the guise of seeking my advice. All her words sounded just like the demon voices I’d worked so hard to exorcise from my head.

As I read her messages to me, I realized that it takes two to be toxic. I was choosing to engage with her, to allow her to create drama, to let her manipulation cause me to second guess myself. Why was I living like this? Listening to her was no different from cutting myself to divert attention away from my real pain. I stared at my phone, wondering what would be the kindest thing to do. There was a burning feeling in my chest. I was more sad than angry. How could I be kind to both of us? The only solution was to remove myself from the equation. I told her she needed to talk to our mutual friend directly to resolve the issue rather than chat with me about it. I was not going to fix anything for her. Then I ended our conversation. That night, as I lay in bed, I knew it was time for me to work on my relationship with my mother.