From elementary school to high school, Leslie and I were inseparable. In third grade, we sat in the back of the coat closet together writing stories about girls and horses, and in eighth grade, we hid in redwood groves sneaking sips of whiskey and pondering the meaning of life under the moonlit sky. When my dad died, I ran to her house and crawled into her bed. No one understood us like we understood each other. And above all, the two of us knew how to make the other girl laugh. I’m talking tears running down our cheeks, needing to leave the room to gain composure kind of giggles.
But there was a dark side to our friendship. I couldn’t see it, but I was the victim of control and manipulation. My best friend was a mean girl.
On several occasions during elementary school, I’d arrive at school in the morning to find that no one would talk to me. My little crew turned me away from my lunch spot. At sleep-away camp, Leslie forgot I existed as she joined the ranks of the popular camp girls, switching back to normal like nothing had happened once we were back home. In middle school, while I was severely bullied she didn’t join in, but she never said a word in my defense, often continuing to socialize with the girls who tormented me.
As we grew into teenagers, Leslie switched up her mean girl style. She stopped the intermittent ostracizing, but she became extremely critical and controlling. She communicated her disapproval with subtle jabs implying that my clothes were too revealing and my music not alternative enough. I didn’t even realize how suffocating she was until she transferred schools in junior year and I felt the sweet relief of not needing to worry about her snide remarks as I picked out my outfits.
So why did I stay friends with Leslie when she treated me this way? She was familiar. She was one of my first friends, so I didn’t have much to compare her to when it came what a friend should be like. Having a best friend gives a young girl an identity and that brings security. And ultimately? I liked being her friend. The good parts were really good. We had a lot of fun together, and not just shallow fun. We had a deep connection. I stuck with her.
She ended it when we were 22. I had returned from a solo trip to India and I was excitedly recounting my adventures to Leslie over the phone.
“You shouldn’t travel alone. That’s a very dangerous thing for a woman to do. I don’t want you doing that again.”
Her only defeating comments were such a buzzkill, that I thought them over that night, and I brought it up the next day as we ate sandwiches on the grassy knoll at the park by my apartment. I told her slowly and carefully that I understood her concerns, but I was an adult and she needed to respect the decisions I made for myself. I told her she couldn’t tell me what to do.
But this was major. See, I had never, ever confronted her before. This small statement was the first and only time I had asserted myself.
She never spoke to me again. After 15 years of fast friendship, I stood up for myself and she disappeared completely.
There was pain. There was judgment, anger, and grief. But somewhere amidst the stinging rejection, was bliss.
With the chains of my old identity broken, I stepped fully and completely into being the person I craved to be. I fully embraced the girl I was already moving towards becoming, but couldn’t reach, not as long as I was still wrapped up with Leslie.
I learned who I am, and I like myself.
Leslie always wanted us to have a tough, edgy image. Femininity to Leslie, symbolized weakness. But I am totally and completely different. I have a soft demeanor and a girlish giggle. When I love a man, I want to please him and clean his socks too. I don’t need or want to look like a tough girl. My strength lies within my gentleness and I’m proud of that.
Leslie dropped me as soon as I gave her something she didn’t want to handle. And truly, it would have happened eventually. Throughout our many years of friendship, Leslie exhibited a pattern in her friendships. She’d make a new friend and latch on to her like she was everything. And then, unexpectedly, the same girl she gushed about became repulsive to her and she’d cut all ties. I watched these girls grieve. I suppose it was because of the length of time we’d been friends that I assumed wrongly this wouldn’t happen to me.
But now I get it.
You see, best friendships are a unique kind of relationship for young women. They’re more intense than your standard friendship, and they’re wrapped up in unspoken commitment, codependency, and separation anxiety. This kind of relationship can be a wonderful and supportive bond for girls navigating adolescence and early adulthood, but it’s not based on simply getting along. It’s not just commonalities that dwindle if and when they ultimately grow apart.
Young women are building their identities, and the friends that they choose, especially their best friends, function as an extension of themselves. When they change and grow, sometimes these friends no longer represent what they seek to become. That’s why these relationships often abruptly with vague explanations.
But Leslie wasn’t your average adolescent female. She was extremely insecure about her own identity. Instead of deriving mutual support and growth from her friendships, she used them as tools to continually reinvent herself and experiment with her self-definition, all the while fiercely anxious about whether that identity was desirable. She worried constantly about whether or not she was worthy. She used others in her preoccupation with validating herself, and they ended up hurt.
I, on the other hand, was paralyzed by the myth of eternal best friendship and a tendency towards the familiar. We couldn’t do it together.
I gave my whole self to Leslie, despite and without considering what little of herself she gave to me. Maybe I wasted a lot of time and I missed out on a lot of alternative realities I could have enjoyed. I hung on like a fool, even when she dumped me.
And still, I value loyalty. Sure, sometimes you get hurt. But you have your integrity. And with most people, fierce loyalty pays off. I’m glad my experience didn’t stop me from continuing to be vulnerable and present in my friendships, because I’ve reaped the benefits in my relationships since. And I could only enter into these relationships after completely cutting ties with Leslie. So in the end, I owe it to her.