There’s nothing worse than a friend who always brings you down; someone needy, depressing, wanting more of you than you are able to give. Someone who’s a downer, who can make your heart plummet at the first word. A bore. A toxic someone, a someone who is not worth the resources to feed and sure as fuck not worth your time. Someone whose company you are better off without, someone who should be pruned from your life.
According to every womens’ mag and psychopop blog in existence, that’s a truth universally accepted. It’s probably possible to make a living belching out articles about fifteen ways to fuck off your inadequate friends so they don’t inconvenience your life.
So who are these toxic people, these dreary humans who bring every conversation down? What happens to them once they’ve been dumped? What’s that experience actually like?
It sucks. It sucks and I know that, because once I was the toxic person. I was not pleasant to be around because I was deeply depressed, anxious, lost, self-medicating with alcohol, awkward, strange, creative but weird, disturbing, maybe even frightening. But for that, I’m pretty sure I didn’t deserve to lose all but one of my social supports in the one fell swoop.
It’s hard to remember exactly what happened, because my state of mind was so different to now and so divorced from reality. The origins of my mental illness were laid fairly early in my life, probably because my difficulty reading social signals left me vulnerable to social abuse. While I was getting straight As and my stories and paintings were good enough to win me the primary school 6-grade award for creativity, at home things were not good. My brother and mother mentally and physically bullied me through my childhood.
I don’t remember each individual punch by my brother because that was an everyday occurrence, the wallpaper of my life. What I remember is the one-off creative abuse: that time he held me under the water in the pool until I was sure I was going to drown, the time he sat on my torso and jumped up and down on my belly – I don’t know how long he did that for, but there was enough time for me to roll over so that my spine was taking the force instead of my belly. That time he attacked me on my bed, my own fucking bed! And I called out, and Mum arrived, and observing my legs splayed as I tried to fight him, went berserk. At me. Because my freaking knickers were showing.
And then of course there was Mum’s sporadic abuse. If ever I yelled at my brother, I would be the one who took punishment. The time she threw me into my bedroom by the hair. The time, in a Tamworth supermarket, wearing that smocked dress that she had made, that gaped and showed my teenage breasts. Please, I said, can we take it in so that it doesn’t show my boobs, and she swung around and punched me with a closed fist full in the face, and I bled down the cream front of the dress. The time she slapped me hard on the face, then sat on my bed tearfully trying to apologise while turned to the wall I closed my eyes and wished myself invisible.
I didn’t even register any of this as abuse until this year when she died, and all that repressed anger and confusion rose to the surface.
But I wasn’t a full social leper as a child. I always had a small group of friends and we devised our own fun – music, choreographing dancing, pulling pranks and smoking. By college I found myself drafted into a much larger group of clever young things, my entry mainly via my boyfriend. I was still on the periphery of that group, but I had people to talk to, who would invite me to parties and go to movies or ice-skating.
That all changed in my second year at University. I’d lived the first year in a University hall of residence with my parents paying. In the year before, I’d started to become depressed, and the social and intellectual pressure of Uni became overwhelming. Towards the end of my first year, my parents discovered I was sexually active and they ordered me to move back home, saying they “disapproved of my lifestyle”.
I lasted eight weeks. Things were tense with Mum, who began shouting at me before I even got out of bed in the morning. It came to a head the day my brother caught me taking a photo of the backyard in which he was sunbathing. He thought I’d taken a photo of him in his bathers. He forced me to expose the film at knifepoint, yelling “What else do you want from me, list of everyone I’ve fucked?” He tore down my posters and shredded them, and I knew I had to get out.
A university counselor helped me prepare a statutory declaration that I was no longer able to survive in my parent’s house because it was damaging my mental health, and so I was able to apply for Austudy. Around the same time, I broke up with my boyfriend, and there in my room on the top floor of Burton and Garran Hall, ANU, I was totally and utterly isolated. I became odder and withdrawn, would stay awake all through the night writing and writing and writing, drinking sickly fruity lexia by the cask and daring myself to open a vein. I remember snippets of images from this time only: I would be mesmerised by incense smoke rising slowly in the dim light, or by the swirls of my own blood coiling on thermal currents in the basin of water in the sink. By the sun’s morning rays creeping down Black Mountain. I remember spending an inordinate amount of time doing nothing but pulling faces at myself in the mirror, or using eyeliner to draw a trail of vines up the side of my cheek. All this while I was trying to complete a year of psychology, English, and Maths.
My ex-boyfriend would take the opportunity to sleep with me whenever he felt the urge. I don’t believe he was malicious, just young and stupid and I don’t think he realised how very sick I was. This was confusing, and I took to leaving him notes on his room’s door late at night, begging him to take me back, and later asking him to please kill me, since it would be better for us all if I were dead. (This isn’t true now and it wasn’t true then, but in the depths of despair that can be hard to see.) I once broke into his cupboard in the kitchen and filled his saucepans with dirt. He later told me he would lie awake terrified waiting for the notes to arrive – and yet every week or so he was still sleeping with me. Thank God my counselor convinced me that in order to break the hold, I needed to totally avoid him, to the extent of, if I saw him at the other end of the corridor I should run in the other direction. In my bizarre state of mind, I thought I was punishing him.
Unsurprisingly, my friends who were his friends dropped away. I was blamed for acts of vandalism which were nothing to do with me: as I told people, I’d never do anything that couldn’t be easily reversed (although that’s a distinction that was probably clearer in my mind than others’ and didn’t take into account the psychological damage I had no doubt done to my ex-boyfriend). Someone who met me later, once I had found clerical work. looked me up and down and roared with laughter: “The way *Frank described you I thought you would be ten foot tall with claws and fangs!”
In the communal kitchens one day, I met a young depressive man, a PhD student in emotional free fall like myself. At four o’clock one morning he tapped at my door, lonely and in tears, and I let him in, and he sobbed on my shoulder until the sun broke. We traded stories, and he told me I didn’t deserve to be treated like I had been. Imagine that – the first time anybody had valued me for me, not what I could do. Moreover, I could talk to him like no-one else, and he said he felt happier with me than anywhere else.
We were best friends for 5 years before we started a relationship and eventually married. Our love saved me, I have no doubt of that.
But the thing is, that experience of having lost everything and everyone haunts me to this day. It set up behaviour patterns and assumptions, that I am unlikable, that on some deep level I am not worthy of other people’s time or attention, that I will bore them. And more than anything else, that I will be rejected again.
And actually that happened–when my father-in-law died, he left a compact disk full of his university works which he had instructed be distributed to his entire family. Now, there were files on this disk stored in WordPerfect, an older word processing language no-one had and which no-one in this extremely academic family could access, including some who had worked in IT. Except, as it ironically turns out, me, because I knew how to convert the files, so my husband asked me to make the copies. Some of these files were meticulous diary entries detailing every day since the late eighties. Recall these were supposed to be distributed to the entire family, to whom I foolishly thought I belonged. I decided to look up a few significant happy dates and discovered our wedding date was listed as a tragedy, a huge mistake. The birth of my first daughter was greeted with distress and resignation (and a backward count to the wedding day, just in case I’d entrapped my husband). I was allegedly thick as a plank. Apparently quite a few family members talked of disliking me to the extent of attempting to talk my husband out of marrying me. On reading this I remembered all those awkward times we’d cooked them dinner or visited and eaten their shortbread and made small talk, during which time they were pretending to like me. Each of those social encounters was awkward and left me drained. And at that time I made a decision never to bother trying to make that enormous social effort to like anyone who I didn’t think would like me back. I need to protect myself from rejection because I can’t handle it.
When you reject a person for being “toxic”, you reduce their social circle. They may be left without support. Ultimately it could be tragic. It’s basically a really shitty thing to do. I’ve absorbed the belief that I don’t deserve love or friends. At the same time, I think all other human beings deserve love, and so as a human being I probably do, and it’s conceivably a pretty awful to leave other people metaphorically out for the vultures, however unpleasant or weird, or awkward they happen to be. This isn’t to suggest that people should make an effort to be friendly with people they don’t like–I personally just think that’s a pointless waste of effort. But for someone you’ve known for a long time, in the flesh, and have done real world things with and have real history with, just jettisoning them because they become inconvenient seems cruel.