How to get out of an abusive friendship

I’m a little odd.

That’s not a self assessment, by the way. I’ve never thought of myself as a weirdo, but people have been telling me so, with varying degrees of kindness, for most of my life. It’s not a satanic mumbling, when-will-the-voices-stop insanity or anything. I just have trouble fitting in sometimes.

Now, this wasn’t much of a problem when I was a kid. But once high school rolled around, as you can probably guess, things took a turn for the worse. Everyone was new, everyone was frightened and nobody wanted to get left behind. A few classmates realized that by singling me out, with my slight, but distinct, oddness, they insured themselves against being singled out by others. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be some long-winded sob story about how I got picked on and stuff. I got off pretty easy, looking back on it. But there was this overriding sense of isolation. It was actually a favorite line of my bullies — “You don’t have any friends!” I denied it all, of course. I’d tell them where to go and what to do when they got there. But it was a strangely pervasive idea. I started to think it was true.

Enter Katie.

I often thought during this time that if my life were a book, Katie would be the main character and I’d be her funny sidekick — not in a bitter way, mind you. I was immensely proud of my lesser role. But she was the obvious choice for protagonist. She was pretty, she was popular, and she always had a boyfriend of some description. In true hero/sidekick fashion, we’d known each other since we first were little, though we’d gone to different schools and lost touch. Now, she was back, my shining savior, ready to prove everybody wrong. I walked to school with her, I hung out with her at break. I slowly became a part of her gang. Each new friend I made was like a strike against the bullies. You can’t fool me! I know him! And her! Look at all my mates, you fools, look and weep!

I was triumphant. But I never forgot that I owed it all to Katie, and that Katie could take it away just as easily. You see, Katie liked to talk about other people. And when I say talk, I mean b***h. When it came to being two-faced, she was a veritable prodigy. The number of times we’d wave goodbye to some unsuspecting friend, all smiles and jokes, only to have her turn around and launch into a bitter rant about what an a**hole/nutter/slut that person was, was truly amazing. And I was terrified.

I used to stay up late worrying about what would happen if I accidentally pissed Katie off. As I imagined it, she’d keep up the farce of friendship whilst secretly sowing dissent among my new and desperately needed friends. One by one, they would all begin to turn their backs on me. Soon enough I would be back to square one, the bullies’ prophesy fulfilled. So what did I so? Simple, really: I let her walk all over me.

Of course, I didn’t see it that way at the time. Being a sort of living joke was all part of the comic-relief package. I did say silly things quite a lot. Besides, Katie was the protagonist. I couldn’t very well mock her back, could I? Her problems always mattered more. And of course she could shoot me down whenever I did something she thought was uncool, or had a different opinion. Not only was she more popular, but she got better grades then me, so she was probably right anyway. So long as the cruelty and the put-downs were interlaid with plenty of affection, I could delude myself into thinking we were on equal ground. Anything was better than being alone again.

Remember, this is all in retrospect. At the time, I thought Katie was the greatest friend I’d ever had, and probably ever would have. I thought I owed her everything. Subtle emotional manipulation is hard to pick up on as an adult, never mind at the age of thirteen. I think the best way to judge a relationship is simply to ask yourself, How do I feel? No matter how overtly nice someone might be, if you find yourself feeling anxious, insecure or downright miserable in their presence, you might need to stop hanging out with them. But of course, life seldom makes things so simple. Let’s fast-forward three years.

I’d like to say there was a definitive moment in which Katie crossed the line that ended it all between us. If my life really were a book, that’s probably how it would have played out. And yes, there were times when I’d come home from hanging out with her and burst into tears, but I always found a way to blame myself. My self-esteem was at rock bottom, so it took a lot to make me wake up and smell the horse crap.

Things didn’t really start to change until I entered sixth form. Here in the UK, we attend sixth form between the ages of sixteen and eighteen as a sort of transition period between high school and university. It meant new classes, new faces, and more freedom. The bullies had long since faded into the background. I was feeling more grown up, more confident. But best of all, I started to mix with new people. Two girls in particular took a fancy to me, and we started hanging out in a trio. I’ve learned a lot of things from those girls, but what they taught me most (if you’ll forgive the cliché) was what good friendship is really like.

Good friendship is this: Inside jokes, late night texts, non-stop teasing, gentle encouragement, singing together, going out for burritos, fiddling with each other’s hair, sending letters just for fun, looking forward to seeing someone, feeling sad when you have to leave, and more jokes.

All of a sudden, Katie didn’t seem so great any more. Now, Tumblr will tell you a lot of nonsense about “cutting toxic people out of your life” like it’s as easy as changing hats. It isn’t. A close friend of Katie’s did try to confront her about how she behaved, and the result was messy. Katie responded with tears, guilt tripping and a surge of self-pity that curdled into resentment. The story got out, and more of Katie’s apparent best buddies started to talk amongst themselves about their own experiences. Feelings ranged from slight doubt to full-blown rage, but there was one common thread: Things can’t go on like this. In the end, it was Katie who became a victim of her own oddness. Now, she’s the one getting singled out.

I know how scary that feel, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone. So I’m staying on good terms with her, but drifting away bit by bit. No dramatic standoff in the rain, no tears and no drama. I want her to be happy, if she can, but I want myself to be happy was well.

So what’s the moral of this story? Opening up about Katie helped me realize that there are a lot of people out there, especially young girls, trapped in friendships that’ll be harmful in the long run. This is my experience, but I don’t think it’s mine alone. It might have been you. Heck, it could be you right now. If you blame yourself for your own unhappiness, my advice is this: Talk to someone. Hearing another perspective can be really enlightening. The biggest surprise of the whole Katie fiasco was finding out my family had disliked her for years. Turns out those tears hadn’t been as secret as I thought.

What I’m saying is, you’re not as alone as you think. Don’t settle for being comic relief. You are the hero. Go ahead and save the day.

Grace Curtis is a lazy teenager from the north of England whose passions include writing, climbing, and large dogs. She also tweets here.

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