Out with the bullshit.
I remember being young — like, under 10 — when my childhood best friend tried to drown me as a joke.
She was my mom’s best friend’s daughter. A year older, taller (much taller), and had two brothers who loved picking on her, so this sort of roughhousing was her thing (oh, and by “thing,” I mean emotional outlet for the pain she was experiencing, but whatevs). I mean, it’s most kids “thing,” and there were plenty of times where I acted similarly. What made this friendship just a little different was the fact that this girl straight up bullied me. Called me names, made fun of my appearance, beat me up (drowning was just what came to mind first), excluded me from things, told on me, made me feel small, insignificant and worthless. Y’know, like kids do.
I don’t bring all of this back up because I’m still mad at her, or to somehow justify why I get to be a huge bitch when I feel like it (because I don’t). But because, it wasn’t the first toxic friendship I had. In fact, I went on to have a couple more.
When I was younger, I had next to no safeguards for defending myself against these kinds of people. The kind of friends who default to the dynamic of “you’re an idiot, but let’s hang out” automatically the second they feel threatened by, jealous of, or triggered by you in some way. Honestly though, it’s not my job and not in my best interest to focus much on why bullies bully or the psychology behind social aggression. Frankly, I could go on and on theorizing and it just doesn’t matter. Hopefully at some point each of these people had a come-to-Jesus moment, did some self-reflection, and stopped being assholes, but if they didn’t… not my circus, not my monkeys.
The “you’re an idiot, let’s hang out” dynamic is obviously more complex than that but titles it suitably. In my situation, it was friends who seemed overly invested or interested in my friendship and being around me, but also spent a lot of their breath insulting me and making me feel less than, and somehow kept me convinced it was normal or that I deserved it and so our friendship went on.
A friend I made at the very beginning of high school, who stayed my closest friend for many years, was about as toxic and abusive as they come. Not only would she be physically aggressive with me, she’d find ways to isolate me from the other friends I had left, and then manipulate me into feeling like it was my fault, and I needed to be loyal to her. She tore at my self-esteem, my confidence, my “love life,” even my family. It was a sick cycle that ended quite badly — a story for another day — and reared its head occasionally for a while after that. Luckily, today, it’s damn near dead. And I know now she had undiagnosed Bipolar Disorder and… nevermind, she’s not the point.
The second deathship was far shorter, as I was a little older and knew crazy when I saw it. He was a friend who, despite my recurring body-image issues, loved to comment on a six pound weight gain I had when I was in college (rounding me up to a measly 120 pounds). He’d suggest we order pepperoni pizza and slather it in ranch, and then when I’d go to put a piece in my mouth, whisper “siiixxx… pooundss…,” or tell me my “double chin” was moving when I chewed. (Looking back, the fact that he was at least fifty pounds overweight certainly contributed to his desire to tear me down, but I digress.) He’d force me to drive everywhere, pay for everything, and make rude comments along the way. He’d continually insult my romantic life and invade my privacy trying to do so — by going through texts, ripping apart the conversations, leaving me feeling exposed and vulnerable. If he interpreted frustration or feelings of hurt from me, he’d get angry and double up on insults. He had no respect for my personal space, my boundaries, my apartment. He’d leave a mess, and tell me to take care of it. I mean, he also had a lot of internalized homophobia and… there I go again. Not about them.
Back to the safeguards: I had none. Most kids are taught early on, either directly in words or through parental modeling, that they are worthy of respect and entitled to set boundaries. I think my mother tried to do this in her own way, but, fell a little short. Don’t get me wrong; she was a loving, doting woman who thought everything I did was great. We hunted for pine cones in winter and painted them with glitter and she hung them on the fridge. But she allowed a lot of people — my father, her father, her friends — to walk all over her and treat her like shit, and I saw it, constantly. And, actually, that includes the mother of the little girl who held me under water. She’d do whatever that woman said. If I could go back to that incident as a fly on the wall, I’d bet my mom said, “oh, that’s not nice,” and tried to intervene, and was told by the friend to butt out before she could get out of her lawn chair. And then did.
She’s an amazingly kind woman and mother with only the best intentions. But we don’t know what we don’t know, and she didn’t know. I watched her be told what to do and what not to do, how to act and what to think all of her life. When we got a Chihuahua puppy as kids, my mom’s best friend said they were “bad dogs,” and my mom took the puppy back, shattering us all. When my dad didn’t show for dinner, or didn’t help to clean, she said nothing and let tears roll down her face as she folded laundry, and all of us kids felt her pain like a black cloud looming over our house.
When I was sexually assaulted by a kid in a classroom in the ninth grade, my mom suggested I move my seat.
Again… I don’t blame her, and I don’t blame everything bad that happens to me on these experiences, or feel wronged by the world. Anger and resentment doesn’t help, and is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die… or whatever that brilliant person once said.
Because also… my childhood was awesome. I had everything I needed and more. My mom stayed at home with us. We took vacations. We had friends. There was a lot of laughter. No one important died. That puts me ahead of the curve, if you ask me.
But I did grow up believing I didn’t really have the right to stick up for myself, or to have expectations for how people treat me.
It’s fucked a few things up here and there. I had some bad boyfriends when I was young. Some unfortunate things happened to me. I hid a lot of my pain from my parents. I got depressed. I almost failed out of high school. I (obviously) held onto shitty friendships. I experienced debilitating anxiety around job interviews, meeting new people, public speaking, or anything associated with my worth. I spent years thinking someone was going to “take” my degrees back. Even now, at my grown up job, where people expect grown up things from me, I have days where I wonder when I’m going to be asked to leave because I’m an idiot.
I sometimes cry into the sink rather than ask my fiance for help with the dishes.
I sometimes feel anger toward people who exude confidence and want to tear them down.
I sometimes feel like the friendships I have managed to build over the last few years aren’t what I think they are, and people must just tolerate me.
But I sure as shit don’t have anyone in my life who puts me down.
I look around now and see a lot less faces than I did when I was more prone to allow negative people into my life. I can count my true friends on one hand. But this brings me a peacefulness I can’t describe. Because I am in control of who I let in. And I have the power to decide if you are good for me. And until you prove otherwise, I will assume you are. And I will choose positivity over the assumption that others are bad, which was keeping my world very, very small for a very, very long time.
And I am working on sharing some of that peace with my beautiful, deserving mom.
You deserve the same.