There are stages of breakups. Sometimes there’s a clear moment when you know it’s happened, when you know that there was a shift. You were with someone. Now you’re not. You were doing something, building something together. Adding layer upon layer of love to a creation that is your own world. You have a language, a code, an understanding of one another that others can’t hope to come close to.
That was my best friend and me.
Some breakups happen all at once – everything’s fine until it isn’t. Like if you walk in on your partner and they’re literally mid-coitus with someone else. Or if they’ve cleaned out your joint bank account and disappeared. Sure for them it’s a gradual thing. But for you, the unwitting discoverer, it’s an all at once, full body, slam-your-breath-right-out-of-you ending. Those specific examples are harder to engineer with a friendship breakup.
Some breakups happen more gradually. There’s the initial creeping feeling that something isn’t right. That somehow the language isn’t working. You’re saying all the same things but it’s like the string between your two cups has twisted and they’re not hearing what you’re trying to say. You try to say it differently, you ask, plead even for something to get through. But it doesn’t and eventually it crumbles. With a bang or a whisper, it’s all the same in the end. That last moment is devastating.
It’s worse with your best friend.
You sort of expect a romantic relationship might end. You hope it won’t of course. But we start romantic relationships with caveats:
It’s a protection thing, to stop us hoping too much and becoming too invested before the spark disintegrates. But when was the last time you said
“Well, if we’re still friends then…”?
We’re not taught to prepare for it. We aren’t told it happens.
And there’s something about female friendship – that close, intense, I know you almost better than you know yourself and I see you, but really see you, I feel so seen and I flourish in it but it also consumes me female friendship – that you’re not prepared for either.
If Heathcliff had been a woman, he and Cathy may have stood a chance, or it may have been even more catastrophic. That’s the knife edge of the female best friendship. It could go either way. It could be the thing that sends you soaring to reach higher and higher potentials or it could eat you alive.
I am an intense person – for some I’m too much. I don’t like small talk. I can’t maintain it, I don’t really understand it. I find it exhausting; a social game I don’t understand. If you want to chit chat about nothing, I’m not the woman for you. I’m not aggressive with it – I respect the boundaries of other people and would never *expect* someone to tell me personal information, I’m just much more interested when they do. If I cross someone else’s line, I’ll apologise sincerely and quickly and back right off. I have a friend who calls me a story vampire – if you want to jump straight in with the real stuff, I’m all in for that. I thrive on it.
Over the years I’ve learned to slow down a bit. I’ve learned to listen to others and to my feelings. I’ve learned to breathe. I let myself take a moment and figure out why I’m feeling something. I grew up with angry parents who shouted a lot. When I stopped running from that, I chose not to be that way. I chose not to lose my shit in the moment because something’s upset me. I’ll feel the feelings but I don’t have to act on every part of them. I’ll try to find the thing beneath the anger and work with that. I’ve learned to trust my instincts when something feels off and then sit with it for a bit. I’ve learned not to rush in.
For the last few months of my best friendship, things didn’t feel quite right. There was a nagging sensation that we were misfiring somehow. It wasn’t the worst thing by any means, but it wasn’t what I was used to between the two of us and it made me feel off balance, like there was something wrong in the universe. It must be the universe, because our rhythm was unshakeable. And yet…
There’s a stage in a breakup where you can’t bear to look at someone, at anything to do with them. Once after a romantic breakup that I hadn’t seen coming, I found myself refreshing Facebook over and over again both hoping to see and dreading seeing something he posted. When I realised what I was doing I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Turns out it was one of the best things I could have done, not just for this breakup but for my life in general but that’s another story.
When I was ready I reached the stage of being able to look at his social media and it was an anticlimax because there was nothing to see. He wasn’t much of a poster. It was as if our relationship and subsequent breakup hadn’t happened in his online world. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting. I exhaled, heavily. I tend to have visceral reactions to things. If I’m nervous about seeing something, my heart starts pounding as if there’s something to fear on someone’s Facebook wall. I feel sick at the drop of a hat and I’ve been known to instantly throw up upon receiving an emotionally stressful WhatsApp message.
So I know not to look before I feel ready. If the idea makes me feel dizzy, don’t look yet. If my hands shake as I’m typing their name to search for them, don’t look yet. If I think I’m going to be sick, obviously put the phone down and go to the bathroom.
Before I was ready to hear or see, someone told me something had been written about me by the best friend that was. It preoccupied me in quiet moments. I couldn’t look. What the messenger described sounded horrible. I didn’t want to see it.
But when I looked today, what I read wasn’t so awful. I didn’t feel sick, though my heart is still pounding a bit too hard for sitting on the sofa writing on a laptop. There were things I disagreed with in the hinting or recounting, things I rolled my eyes at because I’d already refuted them or apologised for them. It was both some of the things I thought it would be and some things I didn’t expect at all. But it wasn’t the hurtful thing I’d been led to brace myself for. Perhaps it was never so bad, but now I’m just ready to see it. I can’t know for sure. The lines of the relationship between a person sending something out into the world and someone else receiving it are always so blurred. We can guess at the intention behind someone’s words but however well we know people, we cannot truly know all of them.
I’ve not written about this at all until now. Not even a hint of a post anywhere. In part, I didn’t know how to do it. To spell out the whole sorry break down, crack by crack, piece by piece wouldn’t do anyone any good. The second part was my anger sandwiched around the pain of betrayal and broken trust. The third was that I didn’t feel sure I had permission to tell this story. It’s hard when it’s not just your own. Who has the right to it? We seemed to experience such different versions of what happened, like two planets that had been aligned, suddenly spinning in opposing directions. Whose truth is truer? It doesn’t matter in the end because the outcome is the same; the friendship ended. It’s over.
In the aftermath someone asked me how I was doing. I said I was surprisingly fine. It was true. I didn’t feel like I was burying anything or blocking anything. I thought about her lots, but the craving to tell her everything that infused our friendship had passed. I expected to feel much more constantly sad and bereft. The weeks at the end of our friendship were so fraught, so painful and so terrifying to me that I grieved unwittingly, in anticipation of the end before it came. I was so certain she was leaving me I essentially prepared myself to be left. I lost five pounds in weight. I couldn’t eat properly. I wasn’t sleeping. I cried all the time. I was shaky and anxious constantly. I burned through my beta blockers. The anxiety was so bad that my resting heart rate jumped from 72 to 134bpm when I received an email from her shortly after the last time I saw her. I was just sat on the sofa, not suddenly doing cardio. I told you I react viscerally. It kicked off three months before my wedding and finally ended one month later. I was getting married in eight weeks and my best friendship had crumbled. I spent the weekend after we saw each other for the last time crying and sleeping, unable to do anything else.
But after that, there was relief. I didn’t feel safe in the friendship any more and the thing making me feel unsafe was no longer here. (I’ve written thing, though I toyed with writing person. The thing here is the friendship itself – I’m not demoting her from person status by calling her a thing. To say person would be to imply it’s all on her. I believe that generally we have some responsibility for the situations in which we find ourselves. There are exceptions of course, but this is not one of them. I own my part in this. We’re both responsible for the friendship dynamic. So I went with thing.)
The magical trust that only we had was broken and though I’d tried, I didn’t know how to fix it. I wanted to, needed to desperately, madly almost. But I couldn’t. Then the madness passed, and it was quiet. Not too quiet, not lonely. Just calm. Like a raging storm had passed and the air was clear again. I could breathe.
I still think about her lots. I wonder what she’s doing, how she’s doing; I wonder if she’s happy. I think about things I want to share with her, things I read or learn about that only she’d really appreciate. I think about the stories she’d enjoy. I notice things I say that I definitely picked up from her. I think about the ways in which she changed me for the much, much better. I think about all that she gave to me. I think about the things she took from me, the things I let her have. I think about how much it terrified me when I got something wrong, crossed a line I hadn’t known was there. I think about the moments of such intense laughter, joy and love. The moments where we elevated each other so high we towered above all else, looking down on the rest of the world who could not touch us.
I wonder if I’ll ever have a friendship like that again. I wonder if I want one.