Query: How many challenges have you overcome?
Dude, you don’t have that kind of time. [i] Plus, I don’t always want to go there. I don’t think you have to include trigger warnings everywhere – I do not drop the shit on everything – but I’m surprised sometimes by the things that set me off. The brain is a weird and wonderful animal.
It’s not that I don’t love the montage of misery’s greatest hits that gets stirred up when I’m triggered; it’s that I don’t.
We could talk about friends. I’m letting some of those go too. The relationships have drifted from “complicated” to “difficult.” I’d say “abusive,” but that’s a word we don’t often apply to friendship, even when it fits. Even when we call the relationships toxic, we avoid assigning the “a” word.
I’m not going to break up formally, though that’s something I’ve done in the past, a challenge-story for another day. I don’t think I’ll need to: the two problematic friends seem to be drifting away in response to my new boundaries. Me not being a doormat and not allowing hurtful behaviour anymore appears to be their Waterloo. [iii]
It’s hard. That it’s not my first breakup with friends doesn’t make it easier. The first time was back in grade eight, though technically, I was the dumpee.
Dammit. I didn’t want to go there. I suppose I should provide some context: I was thirteen years old in March of that year. I was two years into my eating disorder and four and two years after being sexually abused. I was much as I am now: sensitive, self-conscious, disliking of attention (for all that I planned to be an actress), and very conscious of what was the right thing. Or perhaps not so much conscious of what was right, as aware of what was wrong.
I walked to school. Twenty miles in newspaper shoes, uphill both ways, and it always snowed. Or perhaps it was a ten-minute walk to the gateway where I met up with my friends. From there, we carried on to our high school. I’d known both girls for a few years; we’d been friends as well as I was able. I didn’t realize my issues would affect even relationships until later. At the time, I was just me, despite the weirdness of my brain.
We’d walk and talk about this and that. I listened a lot. Most of the conversations were high school girl benign, at least until they weren’t. The gossip was vicious, and the racist jokes they started to trade in made me increasingly uncomfortable. What to do, what to do? In hindsight, I wish I’d had the kind of relationship with my parents where I felt I could tell them anything. They would’ve helped me. They would’ve helped with all the problems I didn’t bring. Instead of advice, I went instead with my gut.
I called up one of the girls the night before. I won’t meet you tomorrow morning, I said. The way you talk about southeast Asians makes me uncomfortable. But I’ll see you at school, okay?
I think she said “okay” or something along those lines. I know she didn’t give me any hint that she was angry or hurt. I had no idea about what was coming. By the time I got to school the following day, my status had changed to “victim.” It’s only a slight exaggeration to say that the whole school was against me. When it comes to bullying, people fall into a few camps: bullies, hangers-on, bystanders, victims, and heroes. As is mostly the case, heroes are few and far between.
I was a quiet kid, but I think people were ready to jump on board because my dad taught there. Teacher’s kids are often targets. Life really can change on a dime. I went from mainly in the background to punching bag overnight, my reality for the next year and a half.
They harassed me at school and at home. Prank calls that carried on for hours and days. Bumps and shoves, hits and trips. The torture was physical and mental – I marvelled at their bursts of grotesque creativity. There wasn’t a situation that didn’t see me at least partially under attack. They left letters in my lockers and at my desk featuring the kind of content that would have them arrested as adults. It was the first time I thought about suicide.
I’m exceptionally grateful for the few outsider friends/heroes who remained. They made surviving possible. Grateful tears still well: I remember that first day at lunch, dazed, chased from the cafeteria by teasing. They offered me a place to sit: it was the kindest and bravest thing I’d ever seen.
I remain grateful social media wasn’t a thing.
I changed schools when I entered the international baccalaureate program in grade ten, so the bullying stopped. When I encountered many of the same people a year later in senior high, they acted as though the things they’d done had never happened. They acted as though it was no big deal.
Be my friend. Listen to my problems. Help a buddy out.
And why not? I hadn’t yet learned to say “no.” I wonder if they apprehended the wall? It was my overkill solution to boundaries back in the day. I moved about life with them braced in place, just like a real girl. They had, however, none of the real me. I was unwilling to trust them again. This is the problem I’m facing once again, but now I know: broken trust is hard to repair.
We’ve talked, as it happened, the friends I’m distancing and I. They called me, looking for help. I shared with them in response that I found their lack of care, consideration, and support horrible and not a sign of friendship.
I pay attention. When people tell me their mom needs surgery, or their dad is starting a new job, or their kids are leaving on vacation, I make a note. I make remembering things that are important to my friends a priority. I write it down. I get in touch: sending you and your mom positive energy today—that kind of thing.
My mom has lung cancer. She had surgery some time back; a lobectomy of the right lower lobe. It’s a big deal, as is lung cancer. I was devastated when she was diagnosed. I talked about it with my friends when it first happened. I tried to talk about it during our summer trip, but they kept wanting to get back to it, which happened never.
A week out from surgery, we all chatted again. I talked about mom’s surgery and having to drive them to the hospital at five a.m. – why are surgery patients forced to deal with rush hour traffic? I talked about my fears and my close relationship with my mom: I don’t tell her the most, but I love her the most.
And the day before surgery, I heard nothing from my friends. And the day of the surgery, I heard nothing.
I heard from a couple of friends a few days after, finally. One friend out of the many who I’d thought I could count on finally dialled me. Because I recognized the name, I answered. She had no questions for me, however. She wanted me to dust off my rusty legal skills to help a third friend. No support for me, but please help others regardless. I initially declined, citing time out of the game, until the friend who was still up in the Interior with the partner she was splitting from jumped on the line. They’d lied, you see. She was down at the coast.
I lost my nut. I told them they were lousy friends. I should’ve hung up and reconfigured the friendships there and then, but they talked a lot, and when the spinning was done, it was kind of my fault. I also got them the legal info because I’m a nice doormat. I wish I could say that was the final straw, but I had to be punched once more. Even now, I want to reach out. Breaking patterns of abuse is hard, and recognizing abusive behaviour in friendships is a challenge.
For me, the worst challenges involve other people. “Hard” or “difficult” might refer to the inanimate: ditto “impossible.” But for truly soul-destroying pain, you need the challenge of people.
I didn’t tell my children that life is pain. I wanted to, at times. I want to make the world hurt like I hurt, at times. I’m aware, however, that the guilt would be corrosive. Besides, I know something else: anecdotes aren’t evidence.
My childhood and adult life might have had what I consider to be an unfair number of challenges. I might even partially believe Wesley when he tells Buttercup that life is pain, but what’s true for me isn’t necessarily true for the world.
I didn’t tell my children that life is pain. But I made damn sure they had a strong sense of self and good boundaries.
Header credit: Getty Images.
[i] I have no idea why I love using, “dude,” only that I do. Perhaps my inner surf rat is trying to escape?
[ii] I finally watched Frozen. I loved it. Switching out Netflix for Disney+ was a good choice. Don’t even get me started about WandaVision. I can get intensely focused when it comes to things I connect with.
[iii] I think this essay has the most quote marks ever.