Monday, October 11, 2010

Toxic Friendships

One day last year, I had a conversation with my daughter about toxic friendships.

“You know that kid at school that makes you crazy? She tries to be your friend and the whole thing is just wrong and bad for you? But you cannot figure out how to get rid of her?”

“Yeah,” said my little girl.

“I have one of those.”

“Oh, that’s bad,” she said, “real bad.”

I told her that there are many problems one encounters as a young person. I said you may grow older and more mature, but the obstacles still occur. This was not good news to her, but I assured her that moments like this are good learning experiences for future relationships. Over coffee and tea we discussed what to do about toxic people and what was happening with her own less-than-desirable relationship. Time resolved both of our problematic relationships. Eventually, my daughter stopped clashing with this other child at school, and the two could offer friendly hellos and move about in similar circles. In fact, they are together in class again this year, seem to be getting along better, and the other child’s mother has requested a playdate.

My own toxic friendship wasn’t just uncomfortable; it was frightening. A woman I had met at a children’s event became my walking partner for a very short time. She fairly quickly had alluded to her recent recovery from some kind of a mental episode. I was compassionate and non-judgmental at first, but as time grew, I became incredibly concerned. She exhibited difficult behaviors and told terrible stories about herself and her relationships. She could not interpret her friends’ actions as what they were—reactions to someone who behaves unpredictably and irrationally. The last time I walked with her, her dog lunged and snapped at a passing jogger. My then-friend repeatedly whipped her dog with the leash--in front of me, in the presence of others, and without an iota of remorse, shame, or sense of awkwardness.

Horrified, I went home as soon as I could. In the next several days, I neither initiated a call nor returned hers. Finally I did leave a message for her—that I was thinking about her, but was unable to commit to walking at this time. My answer was truthful, but I was not completely honest. I thought about telling her why we could not be friends, but no amount of honesty would have changed the situation, improved her future relationships, or made things ok. She was too far past the point of return. In fact, my telling her she scared the hell out of me may have invited more trouble than this family needed.

This past summer, I ran into her while exploring an historic part of town. My former friend had not even recognized me. In fact, wild-eyed and at least twenty pounds lighter than she once was, she was barely recognizable herself. Out of politeness, I stopped to say hello, but her conversation was strange and confused. She was almost as disheveled as some of the street people in the area.

Thankfully, I have never heard from her since, and that door to the potential relationship has officially closed. I cannot help but wish her well and hope that one day her interior light is restored and her reality includes healthy relationships. Sometimes, that well wishing is the best we can offer.

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