e’re sitting behind a small wooden table, drinking cheap wine. Summer has just begun and the red in the sky is giving way to a pleasant shade of purple.
Even though the evening is here, neither Laurie nor me feel very chilly – from this day onwards, at least until the cold rears its ugly head again, Berlin is turning itself into a series of endless open air festivals.
Our little hangout reflects this festive mood, at least on the outside. If you were just a random person walking by, you would have seen two friends comfortably sharing a bottle, drinking out of paper cups, chatting away, laughing... It would all look like an uplifting scene from a European indie film.
The truth however, is a bit different. Laurie is my friend, yes, and what’s coming out of my mouth is real laughter, but the unpleasant feeling bouncing around my skull is one of deep discomfort. The truth is I’d rather be anywhere else right now.
It’s not that anything bad happened between the two of us just moments ago, like one of those pissing contests that escalated and have gone horribly wrong… I’ve known Laurie for almost 5 years and during that time we’ve never even had as much as a polite disagreement.
Which doesn’t change the fact that I’ve come to view this friendship as a tedious chore at best, and a destructive force draining the joy out of my life at worst.
Walking to the bar tonight, I had no difficulty imagining how our meetup will unfold… and I wasn’t mistaken.
For the past 30 minutes Laurie’s been discharging a mass of negativity straight onto me, like a garbage truck unloading it’s load of trash onto a landfill. It's stuff that’s been bothering her about her boyfriend, her colleagues, her friends, her sister and her parents, it's a ruthless monologue, a minefield in which all of these offensive characters keep stepping on landmines, getting blown up because of their own stupidity.
Laurie has a keen eye for human weakness, and her ability to consistently find something disappointing in people reminds me of a sophisticated military drone – it’s completely useless to try and hide, you’re going to get blasted no matter what you do.
As I’m pouring myself another cup out of this dubious bottle of Merlot, I am visited by an unpleasant thought; I’m certain that when I’m not around, the target on my back must be as big as my head, which is pretty damn big. But yet again, I’m too fearful to say anything. So I continue swallowing the bile that's coming my way, without trying to get a word in.
At one point Laurie expands on the sins of her parents (like many of us she experienced a tough, but far from an abusive childhood) when one of her sentences forces me to put the cup down, and finally interrupt : “Sorry, did you say that you can’t wait to…”
“…I can’t wait for my mother to finally die, yeah. She’s been dragging me down for the longest time, and I just want her to croak already.”
I look into Laurie’s eyes, searching for a hint of irony, or a joke gone too far, but there’s none of that waiting for me in that calm, still gaze.
For at least a year now I’ve been hoping for a miraculous turnaround in Laurie’s demeanour… but there’s just no use denying it anymore – she has fully committed to residing in the shadows of her mind.
And she wants everybody else to be down there with her.
Our friendship didn’t start out this way.
When I met Laurie half a decade ago, one of those rare blasts of inexplicable proximity instantly turned us into pals. I was attracted to her sharp wit, while she seemed to appreciate my silly brand of humour. We were both fresh meat in Berlin, a couple of expats coming from different parts of the world, sharing the anxiety of packing up our lives and moving to a foreign land.
We danced through techno parties, we lamented over financial difficulties, we brought other wandering souls together.
It was a great time…
But soon after becoming comfortable in my presence, I noticed Laurie developing a tendency of having the need to "confide in me". Yet these “heart to hearts” had less to do with her internal struggles, and more with others constantly fucking up. When I tried to offer some sort of a feeble defence on behalf of people who weren’t there, I was steamrolled like a piece of wet cardboard. The power balance in this relationship wasn’t tipped in my favour, a fact I was aware of from the beginning, but conveniently kept ignoring.
In my second year of living in Berlin, I experienced a breakdown due to a particularly savage bout of health anxiety. I was never good at asking for help, but for people who were close, my state was impossible to ignore. Not that it made any difference to Laurie – she quickly made it clear that she wasn’t big on witnessing somebody else’s struggles, especially if they were spilling out into the open.
After 6 months, I slowly regained my strength, started seeing a therapist and forced myself back into the world. I weathered the storm, but even when I finally emerged, I couldn’t cut the ties I suspected were making me miserable. And my friendship with Laurie was definitely one of those.
Despite all of my new found dedication to self-healing, our relationship remained in place. Fear of disappointing somebody that knew me so intimately made me freeze in my tracks.
So instead of cutting the cord, I took the easier way out – I began evading.
But Laurie was having none of it. As soon as I forayed out of her sphere of influence, she conjured up a manoeuvre that pulled me back in. She would insert herself into a dodgy situation (usually involving too much booze and drugs), and then ask for a rescue. If I tried to wiggle myself out of it, the emotional blackmail would intensify. More often than not I complied.
And to this day I still do.
Which brings me to the point I’ve really been trying to make - because this isn’t about Laurie being an exploitative friend, or about Laurie being a morally dubious person.
It isn’t even about the unhealthy nature of this particular friendship.
It’s about the lack of responsibility that I keep exhibiting, responsibility that I owe to myself and to nobody else.
Because believe it or not, this isn’t the first time I’ve found myself in the claustrophobic trap of a toxic friendship.
The unyielding attraction of anxious people to toxic friendships is as transparent as glass. Don’t believe me? Just look inward.
Yes you, the sexy, yet tortured stranger reading these lines.
My highly educated guess is (since you’ve landed on this blog in the first place), that you might be dealing with some form of anxiety. And if that’s the case, I will bet you the complete sum of my chest hair (of which I’m very proud of) that you’ve been at the wrong end of a toxic friendship at least once in your life, but probably many more times than that.
I don’t think it’s a highly guarded secret that most of us, anxiety journeymen, struggle with self-esteem, which usually functions as a cause, as well as an effect of our anxieties. It’s difficult to maintain superb levels of confidence when the world seems to be trembling all the time.
This overwhelming intensity of our negative feelings makes us unbearably terrified of judgement. So we tend to seek out people who will validate our experiences without passing a sentence, people who often carry a heavy set of luggage of their own.
Unfortunately, there will always be a group of hawkish individuals hiding in that murky pool, individuals who have, on account of their personal struggles, gone sideways, and adopted a completely dark and cynical view of the world.
These unhappy dementors see it as their holy mission to stomp out the faintest glimmer of hope wherever they encounter it. Like moths to the flame they can’t resist forming relationships with people they perceive as weak, as they believe it will be easier to dominate, and convert them to their grim brand of morality.
It’s no surprise then, that these kinds of friendships exist exclusively on their terms, which is why they won’t hesitate to tell you how much they loathe your efforts to dig yourself out of the hole.
On the other hand we, the insecure teddy bears, know perfectly well that these relationships provide very little nourishment, and even less genuine support. Even more, we totally recognize these unequal bonds as incapable of producing any kind of solace, especially in times when we need them the most.
NEVERTHELESS, WE KEEP PARTICIPATING IN OUR OWN EXPLOITATION – NOT BECAUSE WE LACK AWARENESS, BUT IN SPITE OF IT.
My own example illustrates that perfectly. I’ve been stuck in this dreadful thing for years now, mulling over every little ambiguous detail, trying to reinterpret my emotions in a more positive light, praying for a big turnaround, struggling to come up with more or less convincing rationalizations about why I’m persisting in something that’s clearly making me miserable. No capacity of my mind has been spared in the process.
My intuition on the other hand, has been put in a corner and neglected like a forgotten toy, and for good reason – it’s the only compass I ever really needed here.
Because you don’t need complicated algebra to help you navigate through a relationship, toxic or otherwise. You need courage to listen to yourself and then you need courage to act.
Sigmund Freud once said that when it comes to small decisions in life, you should take everything into consideration before making up your mind, but when it comes to big ones, you simply have to jump.
Which is why I’ve finally decided to have that one conversation that’s been long overdue.
Wish me luck.
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End of plug.
at least until the cold rears its ugly head again, Berlin is turning itself into a series of endless open air festivals and parties.Our little hangout reflects this festive mood, at least on the outside. If you were just a random person walking by, you would have seen two mates comfortably sharing a bottle, drinking out of paper cups, chatting away and laughing. It would all look like an uplifting scene from a European indie film.
The truth however, is different. Laurie is my friend, yes, and what’s coming out of my mouth is real laughter, but the unpleasant feeling bouncing around my skull is one of deep discomfort. The truth is I’d rather be anywhere else right now. It’s not that anything bad happened between the two of us, like a pissing contest’s gone sour just moments ago… I’ve known Laurie for almost 5 years and during that time we’ve never even had as much as a disagreement.
at least until the cold rears its ugly head again, Berlin is turning itself into a series of endless open air festivals and parties.
Our little hangout reflects this festive mood, at least on the outside.
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