Imagine you are in a room with no windows and no doors. The room is empty, except for a chair, and you are alone. There is a small opening in the ceiling, where the sun shines through. You could crawl out of it, if you were desperate enough to get out of this room, but sometimes you like it in the room. The room feels safe, the room feels familiar to you. But the room can also make you feel trapped and suffocated. There are times that you feel uncomfortable and you find yourself doing or saying things that aren’t true to who you are when you are in the room. But still, you can’t bring yourself to leave. You’re worried about what exists outside of the room. It could be bad, it could be lonely. The unknown is scary. So what do you do? Do you stand on the chair, and crawl out of the hole in the ceiling? Or do you push past the momentary discomfort and stay in the room?
I am most often asked about how to identify a toxic or abusive relationship, and once we identify it, how do we get out of it? I was part of a toxic relationship for almost five years, from the ages of 13-18. It took me many years after the relationship ended to understand that, even though no physical abuse took place, I had been in an abusive relationship. I had always thought of a “relationship” as something romantic, but friendships are relationships too. We have relationships with our parents, siblings, friends, and family members. All relationships can be abusive or unhealthy. You don’t have to be romantically involved with someone to be abused or used by them, and you don’t have to be physically abused in order for a relationship to be unhealthy. This subject is one I have avoided writing about because of my own history and experience with it. Even though I ended my toxic friendship over a decade ago, it is still a very sensitive subject for me. It’s hard for me to talk about it without getting emotional or defensive. I’m going to try to talk about it in the best way I know how, and I hope I don’t fail anyone in the process.
Oftentimes abusive or toxic relationships can feel like being trapped in a room, and once we’ve been there for a while, that room can start to feel comfortable to us. Even though there is a way out, we hesitate to take it because we have grown to love the room we are in. Looking back on my relationship with my friend, there were lots of great times. We had a lot of fun. We had sleepovers every weekend, we went to concerts together, we would even pee our pants laughing. I’ll be honest, I was the only one who peed her pants. But still. There were many aspects of this relationship that were not abusive. When things were good, they were great. When things were bad, they were awful.
A relationship doesn’t have to be all bad all the time to be a toxic one, so how do you know if the relationship you are in is a bad one? Sometimes that can be hard to figure out. I know for me, there were times when I would feel really badly about what would happen to me, but then I would remember all the good things my friend did for me and I would feel stupid for feeling bad about the times she would treat me poorly. I think that’s red flag number one. Any time that you feel bad for feeling an emotion, something isn’t right. In my experience, I would try to explain to my friend how I was feeling, and she would dismiss my feelings as if they were unreasonable, and then tell me how stupid it was for me to be feeling that way. That’s red flag number two. I know as human beings we can inherently be selfish and insensitive, and I don’t believe that makes us bad people. But we should be able to talk to each other about how we are feeling without the fear of being told that our feelings are overreactions, and we are dumb for feeling that way. Sometimes my feelings might be overreactions, that’s true. Does that mean I should be told how ridiculous and stupid I am for feeling that way? No. There’s a fine line between discussion and abusive talk.
Another red flag in a relationship is jealousy. When we are in a relationship with another person, friend or otherwise, jealousy shouldn’t be involved. Jealousy makes all reasoning fly out the window. It makes people behave in a way that they normally wouldn’t, including myself. I know it’s hard to see your best friend hang out with someone other than you, or to see the guy you like talk to another girl, but I also know that these situations are going to happen. It’s a part of life. It’s normal to have those feelings of sadness when you’re left out, but you have to be careful to not let your sadness turn to jealousy. Jealousy turns people into someone they’re not, and that’s why it’s dangerous. I’ve seen even the most reasonable and level-headed people act totally crazy because they’re jealous. I remember one of the most hurtful things that happened to me in high school was when my two best friends went to the mall without me. They weren’t even friends on their own, they only knew each other through me, which I think made me feel worse somehow. I remember feeling so betrayed and hurt by that outing, and it probably meant nothing to them. I don’t think they were intentionally trying to hurt me. I know these types of situations are amplified nowadays, because we are able to see where everyone is and who they’re hanging out with through social media. It’s okay to not “like” these photos, and it’s okay to not want to see them. I’m trying to get myself to a place where these things don’t bother me, but that’s not always realistic, so there are times when I have to unfollow someone, or block their posts from showing up on my feed. That’s not meant to be a criticism of myself or the people I follow, it just is what it is. In an ideal world, these things wouldn’t bother us, and I do hope that I get to a healthy place eventually, where I don’t care. But until then, I restrict myself on social media. Some people get unfollowed, some posts get blocked. It’s not you, it’s me.
The last way to identify a toxic relationship is if you find yourself doing things that aren’t “you”. If you catch yourself saying or doing things that are out of character for you, or if you feel out of control in any way, the relationship your in isn’t a healthy one. I am an emotional person, so there are times even now, with my healthy relationships, where I can be a little over the top, emotionally. But I always feel like myself, and my feelings, no matter how “crazy” or “unreasonable” they seem, are always respected by my husband and friends. If ever I am overreacting to something, which can happen every once in a while, I’m able to discuss it in a safe and loving way, and that’s how it should be in a healthy relationship. If you ever find yourself in a relationship where you can’t talk about your feelings-irrational or otherwise-without feeling threatened or afraid, you probably shouldn’t be in that relationship.
Leaving an unhealthy relationship is a very hard thing to do, especially because most times we’ve grown to love the person we are in that relationship with. I remember the moment I decided that I was done with my friendship, and it’s funny because the thing that happened wasn’t out of the ordinary or worse than anything I had experienced with my friend before. I just remember walking across her front lawn to get in my car and thinking, “I can’t do this anymore”. I decided right then to stop being friends with her. I went home and threw up, and then sat on my mom’s bed and watched A Charlie Brown Christmas and cried my eyes out. I think part of what pushed me to leave was that I wasn’t in high school anymore. It sounds weird, because 18 isn’t old by any means, but I had a feeling if I ever wanted to progress in life, I was going to have to do it without this person. I also think that deep down there was a part of me that knew I didn’t deserve to be treated this way. It was a very sad time for me. It’s still very sad to think about it, to be honest. I think it was harder for me at first than for her, because I had to make a great effort not to call or text her, which was the role I had sort of taken upon myself in our relationship. I was always the one who reached out and instigated the hang-outs. She did eventually call me after a couple of weeks, and I told her I couldn’t do anything. There was no poetic or meaningful goodbye with us. She attempted to hang out with me a couple of times, and I said no, and then she stopped trying. That was it.
If you think you’re in a bad relationship, you probably are. You probably didn’t need me to list a bunch of ways to figure that out. I think it’s crucial that you have someone to talk to, outside of the relationship. I always avoided telling my mom about what was going on in my friendship because I didn’t want her to hate my best friend, and I didn’t want my mom to say I couldn’t hang out with her anymore either. I know my mom feels upset now, after hearing some of the things I went through. She feels like she should have known, and she should have done something to stop it. But I understand that the only person who had control over what was happening is me, and I should have opened up more to my mom about what was going on. Another thing that kept me quiet so long was shame. I felt really embarrassed about some things, and I didn’t want anyone to judge me or my friend without knowing the whole picture. If you are experiencing anything you aren’t comfortable with in your relationship with anyone, please talk to someone. A parent, a friend, a counselor, a teacher, or me! There are many resources for you, please use them. Don’t wait around like I did.
A few years after high school ended, I saw a counselor to deal with some of the issues I had as a result of this bad relationship. Up until that point, I had a lot of guilt about many different aspects of our friendship. I really felt like everything that went wrong in our friendship was my fault. And if I wasn’t such a freak or an idiot, things would have been different. I have since learned that it’s not uncommon for victims of abuse to feel this way. A lot of what I went through during our friendship has stuck with me, and for a long time I was in the habit of spending time with girls, or liking boys who exhibited some of the same abusive qualities that were present in that toxic friendship. I had gotten stuck in a pattern, the cycle of abuse, and I stayed there for a long time. I didn’t think I deserved better than those types of relationships, which obviously isn’t true. If you find yourself in a relationship that is unhealthy for you in any way, you have to make the decision to leave. Nobody can make that choice for you. It doesn’t matter how many people tell you that you deserve better, you have to believe it for yourself. That’s a difficult thing, and it might take you a couple of attempts to actually get out of an unhealthy situation. For me, it took many tries. I had attempted to get out of my situation at least a dozen times before I was actually able to do it. There were many reasons for this. I was scared of being alone, with no friends, and I didn’t want to leave my friend alone either. We were very close, and I knew that certain things were hard for her, and I didn’t want her to have to go through those things alone. I didn’t do either of us any favors by sticking around.
Something that was particularly hurtful for me after our friendship ended, was seeing my friend be a good friend to other girls. I would see pictures of her on social media sites and she would have these really good friends and it seemed like she was such a good friend to them, and I was always very upset by that. I wondered why she couldn’t have just been that kind of friend to me. It was very hard for me to accept that she was a better friend to others than she was to me, and I don’t have an answer as to why she was. She just was. And really, it doesn’t matter why. For whatever reason, we weren’t a good match. I brought out something ugly in her, and in turn, she mistreated me. Eventually I had to accept part of the blame for why our relationship was the way it was. Yes, I had an abusive friend, but I allowed that abuse to continue. I didn’t stick up for myself the way I should have, and I didn’t get out when I should have. Maybe things would have been different for both of us if I did. If I had it all to do over again, I would have stuck up for myself more, and talked to my mom sooner. I understand that I shouldn’t torture myself with thoughts like that, because I can’t change the past. I can’t go back to that room with the escape in the ceiling, and make myself crawl out earlier. I can only work on being better and taking care of myself enough so that next time I’m in a room like that, I’ll know when to make the escape, or to avoid them altogether. There will always be other rooms, but I can love myself enough not to enter them. And if somehow I end up there, I will love myself enough to climb on the chair, and crawl out towards the sunlight.