‘How many lives did you save today?’
Rachel* looked at me intensely in the eyes. This was a question she asked everyone by way of introducing herself.
It’s like when you’ve just come back from a recent holiday and you ask a new acquaintance if they’ve travelled much. ‘Not really,’ they (ideally) reply. ‘What about you?’ Fantastic. A perfect invitation to talk about those catacombs of Paris you have encapsulated in pixels, saved to your iPhone.
I opened my mouth to say something (What though? What do you say to that?) but someone else answered before I could. ‘None.’ His voice exuded comfort. He directed the same question back to her. ‘How many lives did you save today?’
All the same, Rachel explained, people would be halted from the brink of death by her research. In her monologue she gripped the vitality of her efforts tightly. She would not let go. Nothing else could be as important.
Two forces were within me in equal measure. There was unease. Other people might get stronger in the face of a strong other. I didn’t. I hid. But there was also magnetism in Rachel’s obvious display of enthusiasm. More than almost anyone else I know, Rachel was alive.
Within a few days of meeting Rachel, I had added her on Facebook. I had privately messaged her asking for her opinion on a matter that she had more experience in than me.
Female friendships come with a lot of cultural baggage. The cliché is that women can’t be happy for one another, they compete with each other, they’ll abandon each other for men, they’ll lie and manipulate and play awful tricks on each other. ‘I prefer being friends with guys’ is a refrain I hear over and over again, the tone of voice boastful. This is a girl above those other girls, a woman who hasn’t fallen into the trap of hair-standing-on-the-back-of-your-neck womanhood.
I remember living the clichéd nightmare of girl world in grade five. Each week, a different girl would be excluded from the group. My week happened to coincide with my being on crutches. At recess we’d play a game where the person who was ‘it’ would close their eyes and try to catch the others, like Marco Polo but with dry yellow gravel in place of halcyon hues and the sting of chlorine. When I could hear no voices nor footsteps and reach no body, I opened my eyes. The other girls were running away in the distance. There was no way I could hobble along to catch up.
I’ve lived the opposite too. I remember at my first school swimming carnival, a friend told me I should enter the 50 metres backstroke. ‘But I’m not good at backstroke,’ I said. She told me she believed in me and I won that event.
One of my friends in primary school and I planned to write a novel together. She would write a page, then I would. Her handwriting reminded me of straight rows of houses in suburbs closer to the city than ours. I felt giddy. We were so close we knew how to compromise our creative visions, even synthesise them.
Female friendship is more complicated than the vicious and the lovely though. They are interactions which accommodate a range of needs. When I was sick once Rachel had come to visit me with a mutual friend and afterwards, Rachel told me that the mutual friend hadn’t wanted to see me, she had to convince them to come. It later turned out that this was untrue. She lied about all sorts of things that were relatively easy to fact-check later. Things like her previous relationship statuses and her health and the warped portraits of characters in her life. She would say things like, ‘when I was your age…’ to me even though I was older than her.
None of this was done for the thrill of hurting me when I was already limping. She never abandoned me like those grade five girls. Quite the opposite. She needed me to see that I needed her. She posited herself as the only one I could trust, as someone who is more experienced in issues that were on my mind, and as someone who is destined for great things.
Advice-giving was a major part of our relationship. Specifically, her advising me regardless of whether I asked for it. I get where she was coming from. I’ve sat for hours listening to female friends agonise over whether to confront an antagonist, to dump their romantic interest, to chemically write themselves off, to go for a risky opportunity, to buy something expensive. There’s something zestful in listening, in giving advice and then putting the disclaimer at the end, ‘but it’s up to you’. Your friend is interested in your thoughts, they trust you. Receiving the advice can be fun too, because our friends subconsciously pick up what it is we want them to say. When that’s achieved, everyone is happy.
Rachel needed to be the one creating happiness, the trusted one, the one who saves lives. The bigger my problem, the more I suffered, the more enthusiasm she showed. In her eyes, rounded and electrical. Her mouth, smiling despite itself. And her voice, an auditory skate park.
Our relationship was founded on my asking for her advice and she never allowed it to move beyond that.
And I never insisted that it move beyond that. I let her say what she wanted because I never realised that I could decide how I would let other people treat me.
Rachel gave me a vague sense of unease that I was barely consciously aware of. I had started fact-checking some of her statements, mentally noting various inconsistencies. It was like trying to solve a mystery without knowing what the crime was.
I didn’t realise it was the start of the end when it happened. I was talking to Rachel on Skype and she misused a word. I asked her to clarify what she meant and the conversation went on. She later sent me a private message on Facebook calling me ‘catty’ for asking her what she meant. It snowballed. There was a persistent stomach churning. There were some public statuses on social media and a non-apology (as in, ‘I’m really sorry you feel the way you do about it’). It shook me awake to what had been happening over our entire friendship: I was being used. The day after I was mildly antagonistic in questioning her use of words, was the day she realised that she didn’t control how I saw her. I wanted to accept the non-apology but I knew I couldn’t. There was a ‘break-up’ letter. My stomach stopped churning. At first there was merciful relief. Later I would occasionally wonder if I had done the wrong thing, but I would soon remember: I don’t miss her.
Most articles on ‘toxic friendships’ talk about ridding your life of ‘emotional vampires’. Some of them call for you to give your (former) friend an armchair diagnosis of a personality disorder. The effect is to cast blame on one individual and convey the sense that female friendships can be dangerous.
But I came to realise something different. The problem isn’t the person, it’s the dynamic. This is significant because it doesn’t just call for a demonization and psychoanalysis of the other – it calls for reflection. That is, I began to see my own part in the discomfort I felt.
When I first went to university, I lived in a residential hall and each evening a group of us would take over two tables while building up an appetite sufficient to actually imbibe the institutional food. Together, we were a boisterous double-table discussing politics, pop culture, sex, the food, anything where a participant requires a strong opinion and a strong voice. I only had the opinions. Nobody gave me space to speak to them.
But something that abandoning my friendship with Rachel showed me was that it isn’t up to others to give me space, I had to demand it. In the case of her friendship, I realised that I needed to be more than an avenue for her good feelings. I had to create my own. For the first time I was able to move beyond a ‘victim’ role. I began to see myself as someone who can exert control on the world rather than someone who has stuff done to them.
Recently, I met Paige* who cornered me at a party and told me her life story. She gave armchair psychiatric diagnoses to all her family members and told me all about her writing, her tattoos, her university career that had mostly travelled in starts and stops. I was intrigued by her, she seemed clever and strong-willed. I didn’t look her up on Facebook later.
I didn’t want to be her friend because the set-up was too familiar. Paige was focused on her needs (in this case, a captive audience), I would have to fight to get mine looked at. I want a friend who will ask me a question that isn’t just a conduit for their own shedding of ill-kept secrets and CV-style lists of achievements. I want someone to care that I exist. Not because my existence helps them but just because I’m a human being.
Having fulfilling relationships involves people honestly coming together and negotiating what they mean to each other. I had been denying myself that by staying quiet and accepting Rachel’s needs without presenting my own.
Saying something earlier would have complicated things, but that’s the point. Female friendship can be complicated and messy because it involves people, who are also complicated and messy. The tangle of egos that emanates? That’s where the fruit lies. Whether they are pleasant or unpleasant, they help you learn about your capabilities, what you need, who you are. My friends are all gifts.
* Names have been changed to protect anonymity.
Erin is a Sydney-based writer and PhD candidate. Her recent summer days have been spent doing some combination of reading, writing, taking walks while listening to Stephen Fry narrate the Harry Potter books, downing lemon lime and bitters, and zooming around on rollerskates. Tweet her! @xerinstewart